Hearing requested in online chat case

An Azalea Middle teacher is accused of exchanging instant messages with a female student.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published September 23, 2007

St. Petersburg- A Pinellas middle school teacher accused of having an inappropriate online relationship with a female student has requested a hearing, temporarily postponing a decision on his dismissal.

Jason L. Williams, 32, a math teacher at Azalea Middle School, has been on paid administrative leave since August after district officials found instant messages between him and the student on his school laptop computer.

Now, School Board members likely will suspend Williams without pay when they meet Tuesday; they can't consider the issue of dismissal until the conclusion of the hearing he requested, said school spokeswoman Andrea Zahn.

According to district records, Williams' online conversations with the student began in February and continued through May. In one series of messages, Williams told the girl how to find the percentage of a number. In another, he and the student discussed an episode of American Idol.

But in early April, in response to the girl's request to visit him in his classroom, Williams told her to sign his initials on a hall pass. "If he asks," Williams wrote, "I'll say it's me."

Jim Lott, an official in the district's Office of Professional Standards, said the messages crossed a line.

"Our teachers many times will talk to students online for very legitimate reasons," Lott said. "But if it appears a conversation is taking place that has no relation to school business, we question the teacher's motives."

Investigators from Lott's office also discovered that Williams used his computer to access pornographic Web sites. Williams, who did not return a call for comment, admitted to school officials that he visited the sites, but denied that his online conversations with the girl were inappropriate.

Instead, Williams told officials, he often communicated with the girl online because he felt she needed the support of a father figure after the suicide of a fellow student.

The online messages, which the district released to the Times, indicate that the girl's mother knew she was talking to Williams online. In one message, the girl wrote: "My mom says thanks for letting me burn your ear."

The case came to the school district's attention in July when a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy alerted school police that Williams' girlfriend had been arrested on drug charges.

Pinellas sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said detectives had heard that Williams possibly was involved in drugs, but they were not able to substantiate the allegations. The Sheriff's Office is not investigating Williams on drug charges at this time, Pasha said.

Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Jim Bordner said the agency did assist with the pornography investigation but turned the case back over to Pinellas school police because the Web sites Williams visited did not feature child pornography.

Jade Moore, executive director for the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said teachers are warned repeatedly about using their computers for anything other than school business.

"Like e-mail, these online conversations have no nuance and are impossible to interpret," Moore said. "Teachers, particularly young teachers who are technologically savvy, should always remember that it is never appropriate to be friendly with students outside working hours."

Lott, the professional standards official, said the district receives two or three complaints a year involving alleged inappropriate conduct between a teacher and a student. He said his team looks at each case individually before making a recommendation for disciplinary action to the district superintendent.

In this case, Lott said, the recommendation was for dismissal.

Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or 727 893-8413. Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Fast Facts:

Conversation excerpts

Azalea Middle School teacher Jason Williams, 32, engaged in extensive online conversations with a female student from February to May of this year. Here are excerpts from some:

8:06 p.m. Feb. 8

Williams: i need to get to the gym more often myself. since i've been sick last month i've had trouble getting up ...

Student: r u gonna go to lifestyles by the mall?

Williams: yeah i'm a sissy

Student: haha well if u go u should go there

Williams: I usually go to the one by my house way down on

Student: well u can go to all of them if u have good plan. u can go to mine if u want to, the place should let u

Williams: yeah, i want to go to mine before school and yours after ... but i'm way too lazy lol

Student: u should ... boy get up!

Williams: one of these days

Student: lol well if i can do it so can u

Williams: yeah but i'm an old geezer, you're still young

9:13 p.m. March 16

Student: how is your daughter?

Williams: good

Student: that's good, so how are you and ur lady doing?

Williams: good, we're going out tomorrow night

Student: need a sitter?

Williams: actually, she's going to spend the night at my mothers house

Student: darn ... lol awww

Williams: but thanks for offering

Williams: i hear you're a great sitter

11 p.m. April 2

Williams: hello

Student: hi

Williams: how are you doing?

Student: good. you.

Williams: tired ... ready to go back to school?

Student: yea. i guess. i mean i went todai ... but yeah. is it okay if i come by in the morning

Williams: yeah, definitely

Student: will you write me a pass if im late cuz we wont have enough time.

Williams: just write a pass in your agenda to come to my room in the morning. sign it "JW." if he asks, i'll say it's me.