Transcript of Facebook Chat Shows Pitch of Slippery Slope for Educator

In the fall of 2014, a complaint was filed with the Disciplinary Tribunal of the New Zealand Teachers Council, alleging that relief teacher Leon Duffy had engaged in an inappropriate conversation with a 15-year-old 10th year student. The complaint was filed by the principal of a New Zealand high school (both unnamed) after receiving a hard copy of the interaction from the young woman.

One of the things that makes this case interesting is that the Disciplinary Tribunal reproduced the full text of the Facebook conversation between Duffy and the girl. It offers a particularly clear illustration of how easily such interactions can slide into inappropriate territory, even when the teacher is obviously aware of the risks involved:

Leon Duffy: Hi
Student: Hey man!!!!!
LD: At school?
S: yaaa are you?
LD: good girl. Ha ha. Nah not today. Cruising at home. Why friend request
S: hahahah, lucky! Wtf I want to be at home
LD: Nah. School is cool. Ha ha. Your pics are boring by the way. He he
S: hahaha no way, school shit as
LD: Ha ha. I was super naughty at school.
S: Hahaha why are they boring. What did you do that was naughty? No good ay
LD: I can’t tell you, not a good role model. Ha ha
S: ahahah aw algood
LD: What year are you?
S: 10 haha
LD: Oh shit! Really? How old?
S: hahah ya, im 15
LD: WTF? I thought you were older. Ummmmmm…shall we stop messaging now so I don’t get in trouble? Hmmmmmmmmmm. What classes have I taught you in?
S: hahahahahahaha I thought you knew me??? and science
LD: I do. I just don’t know what classes I taught you in. Why you friend request me. Be honest, promise I won’t tell anyone as long as you don’t?
S: Hahahhaha me and [redacted] kinda just added you as a joke and then you messaged me, so idk, it was a joke so algoods aye
LD: haha. Sweet as then. Hey…don’t tell anyone we are friends on here ok. Shhhhhh
S: yah haha, ahahaha yea I wont
LD: OK cool. I won’t delete you then. Ha ha. Hey we can be bad ass and message each other in class next time I have you. He he
S: your like double my age wtf hahahaha
LD: Ha ha. Nah… Your half mine. Ha ha. I win.
S: Hahaha Naaa your like 40
LD: Ha ha shuuuushhhhh. I was being nice when I said I thought you looked older than 15. Ha. Your probably only 12 or something. Ha ha
S: 12? Im year ten hahaha how could I be 12
LD: Ha ha. Really intelligent. Ha ha. And how could I be 40? I’m way too cute. Ha ha
S: I feel like this is f***ing weird
LD: aha. you requested me remember. Delete me if you a chicken. Ha ha
S: your like risking your job, don’t you have a girlfriend…?
LD: Why am I risking my job? You told me you wouldn’t tell anyone so I’m trusting you. No girlfriend. You have a boyfriend? Ok maybe I can’t trust you?

During interviews with both the police and the Disciplinary Tribunal, Duffy denied that he intentionally tried to strike up a conversation with the young woman, and said that he was simply responding to her friend request. He alleged that the friend request was part of a prank or joke, in which two or more students were teaming up to see if they could get access to his Facebook page. After reviewing the circumstances, the police concluded that Duffy’s conduct did not rise to the level of “grooming” as defined by New Zealand law.

The Tribunal was faced with the question, however, of whether the conduct was sufficient to merit the sanction of deregistration. It noted that the evidence was clear that Duffy could not allege accident or mistake:

The Tribunal observes that the Facebook exchange showed that the respondent knew he was communicating with a student, had looked at her photos, and from the timing and content knew she was in school. Clearly, the teacher knew the student’s age, having asked about it in the conversation. The respondent also clearly knew that such a Facebook conversation might be risking his job and that he might ‘get into trouble.’

Based on the evidence before it, the Tribunal concluded that “the respondent’s actions did reflect adversely on his fitness to be a teacher” and that Duffy “should have know that it was inappropriate to have personal contact of this type, and in this manner, with students.”

The Tribunal rejected the conclusion that Duffy entered into an inappropriate relationship with the student. However, it ruled that the conversation amounted to a situation “that brings or is likely to bring discredit to the profession.”

The behavior was at the least extremely foolish, it could be regarded as having a sinister dimension, and it certainly demonstrates a failure to appreciate the nature of appropriate professional boundaries in a way that any reasonable member of the public would find significantly concerning.

The Tribunal also made it clear that it didn’t really matter if the students were trying to lure Duffy into an embarrassing exchange, or dupe him into granting a friend request so they could see his Facebook profile. The burden, the Tribunal said, remains on the adult:

Simply put, a teacher should know better. Allowing oneself, as a teacher, to be drawn into this type of exchange, has the potential to quickly lead to a highly compromised situation.

In its final analytical point, the Tribunal clearly lays out the appropriate standard of care and best practice for today’s teachers:

We also note that the school did have a social media policy, although it is not established that this was ever brought to the respondent’s attention. However the Tribunal considers that any teacher in 2014 ought reasonably to know that social media is a communication medium which must be used with considerable caution with regard to communication with students. Essentially, it should be used only for totally legitimate school-related communications (perhaps, for example, the setting up of a Facebook page to coordinate a class trip). To use it for private one-on-one with a student with the sort of content that was in this Facebook exchange will always be completely inappropriate.

Notwithstanding the Tribunal’s clear and unequivocal language, it ultimately concluded that the most severe penalty of deregistration was not appropriate. Among other things, it gave credence to Duffy’s claim that he did not initiate the Facebook contact and that when he realized the pattern of behavior, he deleted all of the student friend requests. Instead, Duffy was censured and advised that if he resumes teaching at any point, he is required to inform his new employer(s) about this incident.
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