A popular English teacher at the Australian Center for Education has been terminated after a series of “inappropriate” messages with a former student was leaked on social media, the school said Monday.
Michael Strahan, an American transplant who was well-known as “Teacher Michael” on platforms such as TikTok and Facebook, exchanged messages allegedly over three years with a former student in which he appeared to tell the student to “let me know when you’re 18” and joked about dating the student in exchange for scholarship money.
ACE administrators learned of the messages last Wednesday after they were initially posted and re-shared by Facebook users starting Tuesday.
“We have determined that the staff member’s communication with a student was entirely inappropriate and ceased the staff member’s employment on Friday,” a spokesperson told VOD in an email. “This is in line with our internal policies and in the best interest of our students.”
In a since-deleted apology video posted to his TikTok, Strahan acknowledged that he had sent the texts but also said his words had been taken out of context as part of a “targeted” campaign against him. Reached via Facebook Tuesday, Strahan declined to comment further.
“I’m sure that you guys have all seen the screenshots of a conversation I had years ago with an ex-student,” Strahan said in his response video, which was archived by viewers on Facebook after it was deleted. “Those were absolutely my words in that chat. I wrote those words, and aside from that, I’ve also been a victim — a target — of a hate campaign. So those two things are happening simultaneously, at the same time.”
Last Tuesday around 10 a.m, a Facebook argument broke out after Strahan posted a video complaining about motorcyclists blocking the sidewalk in Phnom Penh, according to two students and screenshots of the original posts. The video touched a nerve, and other Facebook users began responding with posts and memes.
In the comments section of a meme, an anonymous user uploaded screenshots containing Strahan’s messages with the former student, where they quickly gained traction.
“People started posting the screenshots themselves instead of the meme,” said one student who studied at ACE and declined to share his name for fear of retaliation. “Fast forward, it just started going viral from there. It was like a snowball effect.”
“When are you gonna come see me?” Strahan asked the student in one much-shared screenshot. The student replied: “idk:(( when i get a scholarship,” with the name of the school or university blocked out. “Pretty caught up with the things I’m up to.”
“I can help you with money. You have to date me, though,” Strahan said, with a laughing face and a kissing face. A few texts later, the student replied, “ewww … I’m a minor,” to which Strahan replied, “Let me know when you’re 18, cute boy.”
“Okay in the next 30 years,” the student wrote.
Strahan was an active TikTok user and vocal LGBTQ+ advocate in Phnom Penh. People ranging from ACE students to other foreign teachers started weighing in, posting comments and videos about the exchange.
“Seeing that Teacher Michael was acting unprofessional, I was like, damn. He was a really good teacher,” one student said.
Most of the discussion centered around the idea of “grooming,” or the process of building trust or emotional dependence with a minor in order to prime them for possible exploitation later.
Cambodia’s legal age for sexual consent is 15, but teens are still considered minors until 18 when committing a crime. A recent Unicef study found that about one in 10 children between 12 and 17 in Cambodia reported “clear examples” of online sexual exploitation, such as pressure to share sexual images or coercion into sexual activities through the promise of money or gifts. Boys reported being impacted at almost twice the rate of girls.
Six percent of children 15 to 17 meanwhile said they had accepted money or gifts in exchange for sexual images or videos of themselves.
Cambodian legislation does not criminalize online grooming of children explicitly, according to the report. The national code of ethics for teachers likewise does not explicitly mention sexual misconduct, but it calls on teachers to abide by “ethical behavior” and work for students’ interests.
Another former ACE student compared the messages to another recent online incident in which commenters told a child on a reality singing show to “grow up faster” because “uncle/brother is waiting for you.”
“It kind of shows that in our country, to a certain extent, we kind of think grooming is normal. But it’s not, you know? It’s just not good,” the student told VOD. “We definitely have to have a conversation about that.”
The student said he wanted to see more explicit discussions around grooming.
“I believe that it should be further stigmatized so we can uphold the professional standards of teachers to not take advantage of their students with their position of trust, or not do anything that’s predatory behavior,” he said.