UT Teacher Arrested for Possession of Child Pornography, Reveals Disturbing Fantasies

Over the past six months, the Utah Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force conducted an investigation into the online activities of Jeffrey Thomas Patterson, a seventh-grade science teacher at the West Hills Middle School in West Jordan, Utah (a suburb of Salt Lake City).

On Wednesday, November 4, law enforcement officials executed a search warrant at a home in West Jordan and searched Patterson’s basement residence. The application for the search warrant was based in part on information that Patterson had downloaded child pornography using peer-to-peer software. During the course of the search, investigators seized several computers and those devices will be examined to determine whether or not they contain contraband material.

During the execution of the search warrant, investigators asked Patterson if he would be willing to answer some questions. As anyone who watches crime dramas should know, anyone in that position has the right to remain silent. However, to the frustration of defense attorneys, a significant percentage of criminal suspects waive their rights and agree to talk with law enforcement officers, often in great detail.

Patterson admitted to police that he had downloaded between 25 and 50 child pornography videos onto his computer. Much more disturbingly, according to a report issued by the Salt Lake County Jail, Patterson told investigators that he had “sexual thoughts regarding 50 to 60 of his seventh-grade students,” and that he had given some thought to hiding a camera in a middle school boy’s bathroom. (There is no evidence right now that he actually took any steps to implement that plan.) Patterson also said that he had masturbated once in his classroom during the school’s lunch hour.

Patterson’s statement to the police raises two separate but equally important issues for school districts to consider. First, this case underscores once again how easily teachers, like those from every other walk of life, can get caught up in the scourge of child pornography. For decades, it was difficult and dangerous to obtain images of child pornography and only the most determined or obsessed would risk family, career, and freedom to seek them out. With the advent of digital imaging technology and the global distribution capabilities of the Internet, of course, such images are now available to anyone with a keyboard and a search engine box. These profound technological changes can only be offset through thorough training in ethics and law, more effective screening during hiring, and alertness on the part of administrators and colleagues. Even with all those precautions in place, this problem will persist, but we can continue the work to decrease the rate of occurrence and the damage done to lives and careers.

The second issue this case highlights is the need for greater awareness on the part of schools and school districts regarding the risk of hidden camera voyeurism. It no longer takes any great technical skill to secrete a camera in a seemingly private area of a school. All it takes is a credit card, the right spy equipment Web site, and a few minutes of time. As with so many other fetishes, the Internet feeds interest in voyeurism and through sheer volume, implicitly normalizes the behavior. As wireless camera technology gets steadily more sophisticated and less obtrusive, schools have an obligation to routinely search bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, theater dressing rooms, and any other location where students periodically get undressed. (Not surprisingly, there are numerous guides that offer suggestions on how to do this.) Faculty and staff should be educated about this issue and urged to report anything that looks the slightest bit suspicious.

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