At least three educators in New York City public high schools have been fired in the past six months for inappropriate—i.e. sexually charged, flirtatious—contact with students via Facebook. 

According to the New York Post, school investigators found that one of the teachers—Chadwin Reynolds, 37—allegedly “friended” several female students, writing comments under their photos about how sexy they were. He also allegedly sent one of the students gifts, hoping for a date. He then crudely alerted anyone (including, of course, any of his students) who cared to glance at his own profile that he was interested in looking at naked women in the same way a gynecologist might.

A substitute teacher named Stephen D’Andrilli also “friended” several female students and complimented them in a seductive way, telling them how pretty they were or that their boyfriends didn’t deserve them, also according to school investigators.

Reprehensible online conduct by public employees, who had a duty to educate and protect children, rather than prey upon them, has to be dealt with in a rapid and complete way the moment the evidence is clear: by filing any relevant charges and by firing the teachers involved immediately. There just can’t be any tolerance for subtly or overtly paving the way for sexual flirtations or actual sexual relationships (including physical contact) with students using social networking.

These cases highlight a real danger of social networking that has to be addressed through school policy:

Teachers should simply never “friend” their students on Facebook. They should be discouraged from even looking them up. It is too confusing psychologically for them and for the students. It dissolves the usual barriers that once stood in the way of teachers actually seeing the seductive behavior of high school girls (or boys) and observing from a distance their sometimes highly sexualized communication and behavior. It blurs boundaries and invites trouble.

Indeed, the role of Facebook in actually contributing to this behavior in teachers needs to be examined. Because it seems possible to me, as a forensic psychiatrist, that Mr. Reynolds would never have considered trying to seduce his students “to their faces” and might never have considered telling any of them “to her face” that he fancied himself an amateur gynecologist. Similarly, it may be that Mr. Andrilli would never have acted so seductively toward his students “face-to-face.” 

Facebook, in that illusory space between reality and animation seems to have the power to release the id from the superego—to literally fuel destructive virtual behavior that might never have occurred without it. This in no way excuses the behavior of the teachers, but it must be investigated in order to understand it and prevent it in the future.

Would Mr. Reynolds have ever handed his students notes stating what he wrote on Facebook? Would he have ever used a telephone to dial them up and flirt with them? Would Mr. Andrilli have sent letters to his students telling them how sexy they were?

I doubt it. Yet these men were willing to cross all kinds of barriers on Facebook, violating the code of conduct of their profession and possibly even violating their own ethical and moral codes. They did so in a brazen, disinhibited way that looks an awful lot like the way people behave on drugs.

I have called Facebook and sites like SecondLife.com virtual heroin before. I say it here again. Take heed.
While we take aim at teachers like Reynolds and Andrilli, we had better also focus on understanding whether the worst in people can be kindled by Facebook, bringing to life aspects of their characters that would never have occurred at all, if the site did not exist.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for Fox News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, “Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty” has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be reached at info@keithablow.com.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached at info@keithablow.com.