COLUMBUS — They started with phone calls, then moved on to instant messages. They corresponded about astrology. The 28-year-old teacher told the 17-year-old student he was intrigued by her and found her levelheaded.
After a week or so of online chatting, former Elyria teacher and coach Jason Ream suggested he and the girl meet one evening.
They drove to a Northeast Ohio park and made out. Soon they were having sex — at a park, at Ream’s apartment, at the student’s house.
Ream ended up in prison, convicted of sexual battery, and lost his state teaching license.
Calling it “obviously a big mistake,” Ream, now 33, said he’s moved on. “The only thing that still makes it tough is I’ve got this shadow over my head,” he said.
One in every five teachers in Ohio disciplined for inappropriate sexual behavior misbehaved with computers or the Internet, according to a review by The Associated Press of state teacher discipline reports from 2001 through 2005.
Reports from Ohio and around the country show teachers sending raunchy or suggestive e-mails or instant messages, soliciting minors for sex over the Internet and visiting pornographic Web sites on school computers.
In Indiana, a choir director and music teacher lost his license in 2001 after pleading guilty to sending sexually explicit e-mails and Internet messages to a 16-year-old girl, including questions about her sex life.
In Oregon, a middle school teacher was kicked out of the classroom after he used his district’s Internet connection to send sexually explicit e-mail to seven female students.
The AP’s findings were part of a seven-month investigation in which AP reporters sought records on teacher discipline in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Across the country, sexual misconduct allegations led states to take action against the licenses of 2,570 educators from 2001 through 2005. In Ohio, the number was 134 educators, and of those, 32 involved online misconduct. The figures include licenses that were revoked, denied and surrendered.
There are about 155,000 licensed educators in Ohio, including teachers and administrators, and about 3 million public school teachers in the United States.
Young people were victims in at least 63 percent of the Ohio cases, and the large majority of those were students. Nine out of 10 of those abusive educators were male.
As e-mails and instant messages are traded, boundaries get stretched, said Keith Durkin, a professor at Ohio Northern University.
“The teacher just doesn’t go over and fondle the 10-year-old — there’s a process that goes on,” he said.
Criminologists call it grooming to lower their victims’ inhibitions. But researchers debate how big a role the Internet plays in sexual misconduct.
Does it start the abuse or just facilitate it?
“In the case of educator abuse, these are people who already know each other from another context,” said David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center.
At best, e-mail “does create a little bit more of a secure, private back channel in which to communicate,” he said.
The state says it takes all allegations of misconduct seriously. But it also says bad teachers are a tiny fraction of Ohio’s licensed educators subject to discipline.
“There are teachers who unfortunately engage in sexual misconduct,” said Adrian Allison, the Ohio Education Department’s urban affairs director and until recently head of the agency’s professional conduct office. “When the state of Ohio finds out about it, we are the first and hopefully the last hammer to make sure they are no longer in the teaching profession.”
Typically, districts become aware of inappropriate relationships when a student or a friend tells an adult. Complicating the issue is that, in the Internet age, students and teachers often exchange e-mails.
Cincinnati city schools, one of many districts with policies governing e-mail, doesn’t specifically address what a teacher should or shouldn’t say to a student electronically. The district’s policy prohibits obscene language in employee e-mails, along with using the messages for personal gain or profit, “including overuse of e-mail to communicate with family or friends.”
In Delaware, north of Columbus, teacher Daniel Girard regularly sent e-mails to students — in an exchange with one, he was “Stud” and she was “Hottie.” After another, with a 13-year-old girl, Girard went to her house and they sat on her couch and kissed.
Girard pleaded no contest to a charge of sexual imposition in 2002 and lost his teaching license.
From 2001 through 2005, the Ohio school board revoked or suspended the licenses of 285 other Ohio educators for nonsexual misconduct, ranging from stealing booster club money to lying about past convictions to relatively minor problems such as resigning in violation of a contract.
The Columbus Dispatch, in a 10-month investigation, found that two-thirds of the 1,722 educators disciplined for misconduct since 2000 were sent back to their classrooms or allowed to take teaching jobs.
Ream’s case began in March 2002 as he taught fourth- and fifth-graders at Edison School.
He met the girl through a trivia contest he worked on with several grades. After flirting with her one day in a classroom, he asked for her e-mail address, then used school records to look up her phone number.
He called her at home to help her set up an instant message account, making sure he got her password so he could delete the messages, according to police reports compiled as part of the state school board’s record of the case.
Ream told police the girl started the relationship; she said he asked for her e-mail address first and made the initial calls.
After about four months, Ream had second thoughts and stopped contacting the girl. She told a county social worker about the relationship and a complaint was filed with the police department. “She advised that she now understands that he was taking advantage of her,” police said.
Ream served 10 months in prison and was released in 2004.