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Roosevelt teacher on leave after students watch 'questionable' YouTube clip

Published: Friday, March 16 2012 9:31 p.m. MDT

ROOSEVELT — A teacher at Union High School has been placed on paid leave while officials investigate an incident where students watched a YouTube clip containing racially insensitive and sexually explicit material in class.

Eli Johnson has only been teaching at Union since January. On Wednesday, he held a party in his geometry class to celebrate Pi Day, which is observed annually on March 14.

"It's a math enthusiasts' holiday," said Rhondelle McRae, one of Johnson's students.

"3.14 — like the number pi," she said. "So everybody brings pie to school."

The party also included YouTube videos, which Rhondelle said were initially related to ∏ — the mathematical constant used to determine the circumference of a circle. When those videos were over, however, the students apparently began putting other clips up on the classroom wall using the overhead projector.

"We went to just pretty much watching people do stupid things like jumping off the roof into a basketball hoop," Rhondelle said.

Then, the clips suddenly went from stupid to offensive, she said, and Johnson did nothing to prevent a clip called "Is It Racist?" from the Comedy Central show "Tosh.O" from being played in its entirety.

The clip includes a depiction of comedian Daniel Tosh performing a sex act.

"It showed a bunch of girls on the table, like laying on their backs, but they weren't wearing any pants," Rhondelle said.

The student asked to be dismissed from class, and sat in the hall, where she sent a text message to her mother about the video. The 16-year-old junior said Johnson asked her if anything was wrong and she replied, "I just don't like this."

At least one other student asked to leave the classroom, according to Roosevelt Police Lt. Ben Lemmon, who was asked to investigate the incident by Duchesne County School District administrators.

"Some students said they were embarrassed," Lemmon said. "The ('Tosh.O') video was certainly questionable."

Lemmon has conducted interviews with half of the students in the class so far. He said there are conflicting reports about whether Johnson was in the room when the "Tosh.O" clip was played, but Rhondelle said he was, because she remembered asking him for permission to leave.

When Lemmon attempted to interview Johnson about the incident, the teacher requested that an attorney be present. The lieutenant confirmed that Johnson has been placed on paid administrative leave while the investigation is ongoing.

Efforts to contact Johnson were unsuccessful Friday.

The Duchesne County School District has an "acceptable use policy" that applies to Internet use by students and faculty, said district IT director Duane Jensen. 

"When that policy is violated, there are consequences," he said.

Teachers can access YouTube for educational use through an authentication process, he said, but student access is not permitted. The district is investigating whether YouTube was accessed through Johnson's password or if a student circumvented the filter.

"Unfortunately, filters are not perfect," Jensen said. "People are not perfect, and students are the first to find ways around it."

Rhondelle's parents, Glenn and Angel McRae, have both watched the video.

"I'm sorry I watched it," the girl's mother said. "I had to know what my daughter had seen, and for me, it was very disturbing."

Glenn McRae said he wouldn't be so upset if the teacher had acted immediately to shut off the video once he saw what was playing. But that didn't happen, he said, noting that students continued to watch YouTube clips — including one where male contestants playing a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors were punched in the groin each time they lost — after the "Tosh.O" clip was shown.

"That's where I have a problem," Glenn McRae said.

Rhondelle said she has heard some comments around school about her decision to speak up about the video clip.

"It's not exactly 100 percent positive," she said, "but some of my friends and stuff have come up to me, telling me that they're proud of me."

Police plan to meet with prosecutors Monday to review the case. There are still questions about whether playing the video was an intentional act, about whether Johnson or the student who played the video is the responsible party, and about whether the video constitutes "material harmful to a minor," Lemmon said.

"We don't know if people actually knew what the video was" when it was played, he said. 

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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