Oklahoma lawmakers try to crack down on sexting teachers

Ray Carter | May 2, 2024

Trying to deter more cases of sexual abuse of students in Oklahoma schools, state lawmakers have advanced legislation that would impose new regulations on teacher communications with children.

House Bill 3958, by state Rep. Sherri Conley and state Sen. Adam Pugh, states, “School personnel engaging in electronic or digital communication with a student shall include the student’s parent or guardian in any electronic or digital communication.”

Conley, a Newcastle Republican who previously worked as a teacher and school administrator, said the proposed law takes aim at electronic communications that sex predators often use to groom their victims. But it also provides safeguards for teachers who could otherwise face false allegations.

“This protects our students from receiving anything inappropriate from an educator,” Conley said. “It also protects our educators from any potential accusation of impropriety. This also ensures parents and guardians remain apprised of communications related to their child’s education.”

Any teacher or school employee found to have violated the law and communicated with a child without parental knowledge would be placed on administrative leave while the school district investigates and notifies the board of education.

If the investigation finds no further misconduct occurred, the teacher can be reinstated but a written warning of the incident must be included in the individual’s employee file.

If the investigation finds misconduct occurred, the legislation requires that the teacher be fired and the incident reported to law enforcement.

Numerous predator teachers have groomed Oklahoma children using electronic communications. Former Stillwater Junior High School teacher Alberto Morejon is among the most high-profile examples.

In 2018, Morejon was the face and leader of a state teacher walkout, as well as a prominent opponent of school-choice efforts.

But in 2020, when he was 27, Morejon was arrested following a complaint from a concerned parent and a subsequent investigation. The Stillwater Police Department reported Morejon contacted his victim through electronic means.

A probable cause affidavit issued in 2020 revealed that Morejon began communicating with a former student when she was 14 and that he had sent her “approximately five images of an exposed penis over the past two years.” The affidavit said Morejon also sent the girl “imprint” images—photos of an erect penis concealed by tight-fitting clothing such as underwear—“in almost every conversation.” At one point when Morejon was texting with a police officer he believed was a minor, he “provided instructions on how to perform oral sex” and “explained what would happen if she did perform oral sex on him,” according to the affidavit.

In 2021, Morejon was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with the first five years served in prison and the last five years served on probation. The sentence was part of a plea deal in which Morejon was convicted of “engaging in sexual communication with a minor” even though he also faced prosecution on a separate charge of “forcible oral sodomy.” Under the agreement, Morejon was required to register as a sex offender for 25 years.

While Morejon’s case was more visible than most, he is just one of many teachers caught grooming and abusing students via electronic communications conducted without parental knowledge.

From 2015 to March 2022, there were 178 certificate actions and/or proceedings conducted against Oklahoma school staff. While many of those cases involved child predators, a spokesperson for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, then led by Democrat State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, said the agency did not keep data on the reasons for each revocation at that time.

Better data is available on recent cases.

Since January 2023, current Republican State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters and the Oklahoma State Board of Education have taken action on the certifications of 32 teachers. Of that number, 17 teachers had certifications revoked because of sex crimes against students or children including direct sexual abuse (11), inappropriate communications (5), and the creation of child pornography (1). Nearly all direct sexual abuse convictions or allegations within that group involved digital communications at some point.

And that number continues to grow.

In April, five felony counts were filed against Vernon “Tyler” Thetford (40), a teacher/coach at Lexington Public Schools.

According to court filings, between August 1, 2023, and January 5, 2024, Thetford sent his alleged victim “a video of him masturbating” and “naked photographs of himself.” The alleged victim was younger than 16.

HB 3958 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on an 85-10 vote and passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 37-5 vote. The bill currently awaits House consideration of Senate amendments.

Researchers have found that about one in 10 K-12 students suffers some form of educator sexual misconduct between kindergarten and 12th grade.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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