9th Grade Students Bust FL Teacher for Watching Porn in Classroom

FL_Mulberry High SchoolOn Wednesday, October 28, a freshman at Mulberry High School in Mulberry, FL approached her teacher’s desk to ask a question about classwork that had been assigned. As she neared Vadi Velez-Gonzalez’s desk, she could see his iPhone lying face-up on his desk, and was shocked to see it displaying images of adult gay pornography.

As she later told detectives, “she could not believe what she saw,” so she decided to make a visual record. While pretending to throw out a piece of paper in the trashcan beside Velez-Gonzalez’s desk, she surreptitiously made a video recording of the images on her teacher’s phone. Among the images she recorded were two adult males having sex and a photo of a nude male.

School authorities and law enforcement learned of the misconduct of Velez-Gonzalez through two separate channels, one responsible and the other somewhat less so. After making her recording, the first student went back to her seat and told some of her classmates what she had seen. Three other students independently observed the images on the iPhone and relayed the information to school officials, who made a report to the local sheriff’s department the following day. So far, so good. The actions of the young woman and her classmates were textbook “Law & Order”: suspicion, investigation, corroboration, allegation [to the proper authorities].

But today’s kids being today’s kids, it was inevitable that social media would play a role. And so it did: even before reporting the incident to school officials, the young woman posted a copy of her video of the teacher’s phone on Snapchat, where it predictably spread like wildfire. As one student told a local television station, “The video wasn’t playing, but it was paused and you could see what he was watching. It was in plain view but I don’t think he knew he was being filmed. You can do that, but just not as school when you have kids in your class, because that is just nasty.”

Needless to say, having students creating and disseminating videos of alleged misconduct on social media before a proper investigation has even begun is highly problematic. At the very least, such videos can be prejudicial to the teacher’s right to an impartial investigation and if necessary, a fair trial. The video can also unintentionally limit the success of an investigation, by alerting the teacher that he or she has been discovered and providing enough notice for him or her to compromise or even destroy relevant evidence. In the most extreme cases, an impetuous social media post could give a dangerous teacher a warning to flee the area and avoid arrest (thus raising the possibility that he or she could be hired and re-offend in another district).

This case (and others like it) underscore the reality, however, that thanks to the spread of smartphone technology, students now have the tools (photography, videorecording, publication, and distribution) to document anything that they perceive to be misconduct and injustice, and instantly share it with the entire world. (I wrote about a similar instance in Vancouver, Washington, when students photographed a teacher shooting “upskirt” videos of female students during a science class.)

As with so many other aspects of the digital revolution, it is an awesome power that needs to be wielded carefully. While it does not appear that any harm was done in this case (investigators discovered, for instance, that Velez-Gonzalez had visited the adult Web site Adam4Adam nearly 400 times over a two-week period, often during school hours), there obviously is the potential for misinformation to badly damage a teacher’s reputation and even end his or her career.

What this case underscores is that there is a pressing need for parents and teachers to teach students how to handle information responsibly. Certainly by the time students reach high school, they should better understand what is appropriate for social media and what is not. One need only consider the fact that if the images recorded by the student depicted minors, she might face federal charges for distributing child pornography by posting the video to Snapchat.

Bail was set for Velez-Gonzalez in the amount of $8,000. He faces four counts “of showing obscene material to a minor and four counts of use of a two-way communication device to commit a felony.”

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