Sexual relationships between teachers and students are becoming more in more common in our area.
Most of these relationships begin brewing from online or through text messages. The I-Team has found some believe policies on teacher-student communication need to be stronger.
Andrea Clemens moved to Florida years ago after, she tells us, she was raped and stalked by her middle school teacher Robert Baker.
She was 14, and he was the award winning teacher everyone liked.
He befriended her for two years. She says he crossed the line when she was 16.
"It started with a simple kiss and then he said you cannot tell anybody because I'll get fired, I'll go to jail, I'll kill myself and that'll be your fault,” Clemens said.
Why it's important for students to speak out about abuse
She was too afraid to tell anyone.
"He continued to increase the sexual abuse with me all through high school to the point where he was raping me on the side of the road. I really was afraid he said he could bury me and I believed him,” she said.
Years later when Andrea contacted the school, she learned Baker was arrested for raping to other teenage girls. He pleaded guilty to indecent assault and rape. He's now a level-three sex offender in Massachusetts.
She wrote about her story in her book, “Invisible Target: Breaking The Cycle of Educator Sexual Abuse.”
Unfortunately, stories like Andrea's are becoming too familiar.
Searching media reports, I-Team found teachers and administrators arrested for sexually assaulting students have been increasing in Tampa Bay.
In Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, and Hernando counties since 2014, we found 17 cases. There were three in 2014, eight in 2015, and six so far this year.
Overall Florida has at least 69 cases since 2014.
In most of the local cases the teacher-student relationships started with a simple text or on social media.
"It is a significant factor in the vast majority of cases," said Frederick Lane, a former school board member, attorney and author.
Fred spent six years studying teacher-student sex abuse. He wrote the book “Cybertraps for Educators.”
"Consistently my recommendation to school boards is that the duty of care and the standard teachers should be held to is no unmediated conversation electronically," Fred said.
We looked into teacher student communication policies in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, and Polk County School Districts.
We discovered none of the districts have a policy prohibiting a school employee from texting students.
Policies on student-teacher communication
Most discourage it, but it's not banned.
Some districts do have social media guidelines, but many do not prohibit teachers from engaging students online.
Hillsborough County does have a policy prohibiting teachers from friending students on social media.
Within the last year they formed guidelines on ways teachers should communicate with students.
Warning signs of teacher sex abuse
"Overall we believe that teachers, and we instruct them to only use district approved communication tools, but we do see there are some small circumstances where a text might be needed," said Tanya Arja with Hillsborough County Public Schools.
Seven out of the 17 local teacher arrests happened in Pasco County.
Pasco doesn't ban teachers from texting or engaging students on social media. They only discourage it.
"Why the choice to discourage it and not prohibit it?" ABC Action News I-Team reporter Jarrod Holbrook asked.
"I really can't tell you the thinking of it. Even if we prohibited it, the consequences would be the same as they are if we discourage it and they do it." Said Linda Cobbe with Pasco Schools.
Local school districts do have ways for teachers to communicate in computer portals where students and parents can see all communications.
Districts that lack clear cut policies run the risk of enabling the bad behavior, according to Fred and Andrea. Fred calls the problem an epidemic.
"You could quibble of whether or not that that's too strong of a word, but I think it's defensible in terms of both the scope of the problem and perhaps more significantly our delay in treating it," Fred said.
Andreas tells us, "It can't lead any place good. It really can't, and I don't understand why schools wouldn't rush to implement policies immediately just to keep the kids safe and keep the teachers safe, too."
The long term impact of a teacher's abuse
The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay discusses policy options, effectiveness