A sex ed teacher won plaudits for talking frankly about consent. But students say she blurred the lines. | #socialmedia | #children

A veteran educator at U-32 Middle & High School, who resigned her post earlier this year, is appealing a state agency finding in her case. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Meaghan Falby was well known and well liked for her up-front and shame-free approach to health and sex education. But in the classroom — and in several private group chats she maintained with students — she continually blurred the lines, current and former students told police and VTDigger.

The veteran U-32 Middle & High School educator resigned from her post midway through the year and has now been accused by the Department for Children and Families investigators of sending inappropriate sexual messages to two students.

U-32 officials announced Falby’s departure May 1, writing in an email to students and their families that she was “taking leave” for the remainder of the year “for personal reasons.”

Falby is exercising her right to appeal DCF’s recommendation to substantiate sexual abuse, and she has not been charged with a crime. According to a partially redacted report from Vermont State Police, troopers interviewed eight current and former students over a two-week period in April, but ultimately decided not to move forward with the case.

Many students described an educator who frequently pushed boundaries without necessarily being sexual, often disclosing intimate details about her drinking and drug use. One student told police he felt like one of her favorites, and once ate lunch in Falby’s car at the co-op in Montpelier last November. Falby gave him a THC-infused edible during lunch, he said, although he threw it away. Falby was “friendly and funny,” the student said, but had “serious demons and mental health issues.”

But in other instances, things did become sexual.

One U-32 alum reported to police that school staff had been concerned enough while he was a student to inquire about his relationship with Falby. His relationship with the educator at the time was “fine,” he told law enforcement, although Falby would make remarks that made him somewhat uncomfortable. “I bet our kids would be super cute,” he recalled her saying.

Things took a turn when he graduated, the former student told police. Falby texted him a picture of her breasts, and while he initially blocked her number, they eventually reconnected earlier this year. She called him one night while he was “hammered,” he told police, and they had phone sex. Per his account, he asked her not to contact him again when they talked the next morning. 

The high school graduate’s age was redacted from a police narrative provided to VTDigger. Citing confidentiality exemptions to the state’s public records law, police declined to confirm he was no longer a minor at the time of the incidents.

The investigation did not yield probable cause for a criminal offense, Washington County state’s attorney Rory Thibault said in a letter explaining his decision not to prosecute, which is commonly issued in such cases. 

“Vermont law does not presently provide for theories of criminal liability where there is no demonstrable attempt to lure a child to engage in a sex act, compel or encourage delinquent acts, or exchange inappropriate images,” Thibault wrote on May 12.

“Notwithstanding the lack of a criminal basis for prosecution, there are significant child safety concerns presented by the alleged behavior of the subject,” the prosecutor continued, adding that the matter was best left to DCF, the school district, and the Agency of Education to deal with.

“It is my understanding that the police investigated and found no basis to file charges,” Falby said in response to questions about the accounts given by her students to police. 

Screenshot from Meaghan Falby’s Twitter.

Falby had won a statewide award for her teaching and cultivated a following for her progressive and sex-positive approach to health education. In her Twitter bio, she called herself a “consent Queen,” and frequently used the platform to advocate for more comprehensive and relevant sex education in schools.

But then again, Karen Tronsgard-Scott, the executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said it’s common for adults who sexually abuse children to be widely trusted and even beloved members of a community. Perpetrators often have “a lot of freedom to to move around with kids because the adults within that community (trust) them.”

The Department for Children and Families has recommended substantiating a claim of “sexual abuse” based on messages Falby sent over text and social media to two high school boys, according to documents shared by families with VTDigger.

“Sexual abuse” can include a broad range of behaviors, per the agency, including “obscenity,” which is defined as showing a child “any visual representation of a person or portion of the human body which depicts nudity, sexual conduct or sado-masochistic abuse and which is harmful to children.”

“I have been a health education teacher for 19 years and have never in my career harmed a student in any way,” Falby wrote in a statement to VTDigger. “Indeed, the thought that the easy rapport I strive to achieve with my students can be misconstrued pains me deeply.”

While it was Falby’s job to teach kids about boundaries and healthy relationships, the two teens who are the subject of DCF’s investigation described to VTDigger an educator who instead continually used her platform to blur lines.

In interviews with VTDigger, the two boys said Falby never explicitly propositioned them, and nothing physical occurred between them, either on or off-campus. But the teens nevertheless described a confusing experience that left them feeling manipulated and uncomfortable.

Falby was eccentric, bubbly, and unfiltered — and besides, her job was to talk about sex and drugs. A joke about clearing a 10-foot bong, an off-color remark about how attractive the new school nurse was, a gift of condoms for one 15-year-old boy’s birthday — it often felt hard to parse what was innocuous and what was inappropriate, they said.

“Whenever, like, weird shit happened, everyone was under this like veil of ignorance, because it was like, Oh, that’s just normal Meg. Right? Well, actually, if you put it into context, it was like, What’s going on here? This is kind of weird,” one said.

Screenshot from Meaghan Falby’s Twitter.

Both boys said Falby on several occasions mentioned she knew she was not supposed to be talking to them on private social media channels, although she habitually did. And they shared with VTDigger several screenshots of her private group chats with students. 

Remarking in one chat on Instagram with three male students, that “ya’ll are angry men,” Falby suggested the following: “Go workout – and rub a few out…get that testosterone flowing outward.” 

In the same chat, when one boy brought up “good Quality porn,” Falby had these words of advice: “boys boys boys,” she began, “I hate to break the news to you but legitimately most of it needs to be paid for… Happy to buy you some subscriptions when you turn 18. It’s a game changer literally.”

Falby would also frequently bring up school gossip and the teens’ love lives. She called one the “it boy” and bemoaned, jokingly, his interest in a classmate.

“Too bad he’s wasting his time on the young ones,” she wrote, adding a smirking emoji. In another chat, Falby unexpectedly shared an image of a starfish, whose five arms looked like penises.

Both boys said Falby would also frequently call them, unprompted, simply to ask them about their lives. One of the teens said he couldn’t recall anything coming up during those conversations that was sexual or inappropriate, but he couldn’t understand why a teacher would take this kind of interest.

“She would just like go into being like a kid, or something. You know, like she was one of us. It was like she didn’t know her role, at all. And she would cross the line,” he said. A separate student told police that after he started ignoring Falby’s after-school calls and texts, she asked to take him out to lunch. Nothing happened during the outing, the boy said to law enforcement, although her car smelled strongly of weed.

Many of the behaviors described have the hallmarks of grooming, said Tronsgard-Scott: a sense of favoritism, special privileges, gift-giving.

“Relationships that are not transparent. Secret relationships, like texting from private accounts, those are all serious. Those are things that I’d be worried about,” she said.

The two boys who spoke to VTDigger both used precisely that word  — grooming — to describe how they now interpret their interactions with their former teacher. They’ve cycled through a mix of emotions, including shame, a sense of betrayal and anger. 

One noted that Falby first entered his life in middle school, during a particularly difficult time in his life, and at first took on an almost maternal role in his life. And he said struggles to identify a place for himself in the current narrative and reckoning over sexual misconduct, including at U-32, which often ignores that men, too, can be sexually harmed.

“That’s why once I knew it was wrong, I didn’t really say anything. Because of that stigma that, you know, sexual harassment or sexual abuse only happens to girls,” he said.

While DCF’s investigation was initiated when the school contacted the agency, the two teens also feel like the school’s response was bungled, insincere, and concerned mostly with putting the ordeal quietly behind them. 

For weeks after Falby had physically left the school, a poster board of her face remained on the wall outside her former classroom door. And when a long-term sub was assigned to her class, the new educator, having been told little of the context by administrators, asked the classroom if each student wanted to say how they felt about Falby’s abrupt departure.

School officials declined to comment.

A DCF investigator notified the families of the two boys on May 21 that the agency would recommend a finding of sexual abuse in both their cases. If Falby’s appeal is unsuccessful, she’ll appear on the state’s child protection registry.

She shared with VTDigger a copy of a letter she submitted to DCF as part of her appeal, in which she wrote that she “never had sexual intent nor did I seek a sexual outcome with these two students.” Her intentions, she said, “were in the realm of juvenile humor.”

In the letter, she acknowledged sharing with students “an Instagram account with ceramic bodies, including penises,” a decision she called “thoughtless and incredibly inappropriate.” One of the students involved was in a ceramics class, she said.

“As the Health teacher who demonstrates proper condom usage in class, I mistakenly believed sharing this image would be seen as a connection, not as an obscenity,” she wrote.

Falby remains licensed to teach in Vermont, and she does not appear on the state’s public list of disciplinary actions taken against educators. But that could change, pending the outcome of DCF’s review. The Agency of Education, which licenses educators, usually waits until both law enforcement and DCF have concluded their processes before stepping in.

“With respect to any complaints or related investigative records pertaining to a licensed educator, in the absence of formal charges or a public disciplinary action against a licensee, per (state law), the Agency cannot confirm or deny the existence of a licensing investigation,” Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the Agency, wrote in an email.

Alan Keays contributed reporting.

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