Anyone who has ever been a teenager, raised a teenager or taught one knows that poor judgment typically is a rite of passage. That’s a polite way of saying that teenagers often say or do really stupid things.
With that in mind, consider the confusing case of a Rogers High School senior who reportedly sent an ill-advised, two-word tweet when asked if he’d had a relationship with a 28-year-old physical education teacher.
What we know for sure in the case is that the tweet from popular student-athlete Reid Sagehorn and related posts on a sexually explicit Web page led to a school and police investigation and a two-month suspension from school for Sagehorn. And police have forwarded their report to the Hennepin County attorney’s office for consideration of possible charges.
According to reports, the 17-year-old captain of the school’s football and basketball teams sent a tweet that read “actually, yes’’ in response to online speculation about whether he’d had sex with the teacher. Beyond that, there are more questions than answers in the case.
The tweet was part of a series of Twitter exchanges and posts on the now-deleted “Rogers Confessions’’ page on the website ask.fm. Almost all of the posts were about students having sex with other students, except for a series of exchanges about the teacher, according to authorities.
On Tuesday, Rogers Police Chief Jeff Beahen likened Sagehorn’s “actually, yes’’ tweet to yelling “Fire!’’ in a crowded theater or “I have a bomb” on an airplane. Although he did not recommend any specific action in referring the case to Hennepin County, Beahen has fueled the media frenzy by tossing out the possibility that Sagehorn and those involved in the ask.fm postings could face felony charges, misdemeanors or no charges at all.
We still have a number of questions about the case — questions that the county attorney’s office will surely ask. For a start, what changed between the time school officials suspended Sagehorn for five days, then for 10 days and, finally, for two months? And is there evidence that Sagehorn or the students involved in the “Rogers Confessions’’ page intended to harm the teacher?
Beahen said that whenever a teacher is accused of a crime against a child, school administrators are obligated to investigate and, in most cases, involve police. His department was present for the first interview with the teacher and, after further investigation, concluded that she had done nothing wrong.
Based on that determination, the teacher is clearly the victim in the case. It’s awful that she’s been subjected to this kind of harassment, and it’s appropriate that she’s receiving support from school officials and her union. Sagehorn has been damaged, too. The teen has been named in dozens of news media accounts that will be linked to him for the rest of his life even if he is never charged with a crime. Should a 17-year-old lose two months of his senior year and face speculation about felony charges before prosecutors have even started their investigation?
Many Rogers students and parents support Sagehorn and believe his punishment was too harsh. Some of his peers wore “Free Reid’’ shirts to school this week, and more than 4,000 supporters have signed an online petition.
At the same time, the case is yet another cautionary tale about the impact and legal ramifications of online comments and social media exchanges. It’s one thing for a group of teenagers to gossip in the locker room. It’s another thing to damage the reputation of an innocent teacher in open online forums and social media exchanges.
On Wednesday, Elk River School District Superintendent Mark Bezek said that after meeting with Sagehorn’s family, school officials were “pursuing to craft a different outcome, but one that will still make an impact.”
He also said he told supporters of Sagehorn’s who attended a district meeting Tuesday night: “I need everyone to calm down, to de-escalate this a little bit, so we can have some conversations.”
That’s an appropriate course of action — and one we wish all of those involved in this unfortunate case would have followed from the beginning.