Sexting case prompts visit by safety experts
Education leader: No evidence of adequate district investigation
A special school safety unit from the state Education Department will be making a site visit to the Albany school district in the wake of a complaint last February about a lengthy “sexting case” in which a student had sent a pornographic text message to a classmate and subsequently hounded her and other young women throughout their high school careers.
“Given the serious nature of the allegations raised in this appeal … I am directing my Office of Student Support Services to provide guidance and technical assistance to the district to ensure that the district appropriately
investigates all incidents of harassment and bullying,” Education Commissioner Maryellen Elia wrote.
Her remarks were part of a decision in September to dismiss the complaint, known as an appeal. Elia stressed that the case was dismissed because the students involved have since graduated. She also offered pointed criticism about the way the school board and district administration handled the incident.
“There is no evidence in the record indicating that any investigation was conducted to determine who authored these texts, other than outside counsel,” said Elia, referring to text messages that were offered as exhibits in the complaint.
Elia’s decision also came as a group of parents continues to call for an inquiry by the state attorney general’s office, although it earlier told the Times Union no apparent violations of Title IX, the federal rules regarding gender discrimination were found.
“We’re waiting for a response,” said one of the community members who have continued to look into the sexting affair which critics say had initially been swept under the rug.
The controversy in question dates to 2015 when a male student sent a pornographic rape fantasy text message to a female classmate.
Following that at least three students in the high school began complaining that the student in question was hounding them in subtle and not-so-subtle ways including statements including some that referenced the original 2015 message.
Eventually he was given a “stay away” order and instructed to steer clear of the students he texted, according to the complaint, in which names of the plaintiffs, respondents and others were redacted.
But that was difficult since the students were in many of the same classes and participated in the same activities.
Things came to a head in a May 2017 history class, where the day’s topic was the Equal Rights Amendment and the Monica Lewinsky affair.
“In the midst of a regularly scheduled class in Albany High School, the perpetrator sent approximately 19 separate texts to male students in the class mocking and disparaging – by name – two female students who were also enrolled in the class and physically in the same classroom,” according to the appeal.
The female students learned of the text, and the plaintiffs argued that this and other incidents amounted to harassment and bullying, in violation of anti-bullying rules in the state’s Dignity for All Students Act.
The district, with backup from a lawyer it hired to conduct an investigation, concluded that the student violated Albany High’s code of conduct but he hadn’t engaged in bullying or discrimination.
In her dismissal of the appeal, Elia also advised the school district to revisit its code of conduct, specifically because it didn’t contemplate emotional harm as potential bullying or harassment.
School district spokesman Ron Lesko said the code of conduct had already been updated and the state was working from an older code.
“It covers the point that the commissioner highlighted,” said Lesko.
He said the district will designate special coordinators to investigate potential violations of the Dignity for All Students Act. Elia had taken issue with gaps in who conducted the initial investigation in the high school.
Elia cited the school board’s failure to probe the complaints when they first surfaced. Lesko said the board will investigate any allegations going forward.
During the upcoming visit, school safety experts will interview staff members and provide guidance on reporting, investigating and responding to potential harassment or bullying incidents.