Sex­ting case prompts visit by safety ex­perts

Ed­u­ca­tion leader: No ev­i­dence of ad­e­quate dis­trict in­ves­ti­ga­tion

Albany Times Union - - FRONT PAGE - By Rick Kar­lin

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.

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