Abbott calls for crackdown on sexual misconduct, crimes

5:01 p.m Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018 Local
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Responding to growing reports of sexual misconduct raised by the #MeToo movement, Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday unveiled a series of proposals that included creating a “do not hire” list for school employees convicted of inappropriate student relationships and allowing the Texas Rangers to investigate harassment claims against state officials.

The policy proposals, announced during a campaign event in Houston, also included a crackdown on human trafficking, harsher penalties for sex crimes and support for additional money to address a chronic backlog in testing of rape-evidence kits.

“We have a duty to keep Texas safe and do everything we can to prevent these terrible crimes from being inflicted on any Texan,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s proposals, many of which would require approval by the Legislature, included:

• Requiring jail time and registration as a sex offender for those convicted of promoting or compelling prostitution.

• Allowing prostitution convictions to be removed from the record of those who were forced to engage in prostitution.

• Raising the penalties for promoting child pornography, kidnapping a child and sexual performance by a child.

• Seeking $14 million for the 2019-20 budget to help clear the backlog of sexual assault evidence kits. Abbott also committed $1 million from his office’s Criminal Justice Division to “kick start” the testing.

• Establishing a grant program through the governor’s office to help counties pay for GPS monitoring of those involved in domestic violence, sex offender and human trafficking cases.

• Finding $22 million to create a Department of Public Safety unit devoted to investigating human trafficking.

Chris Kaiser, director of public policy for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said his advocacy organization looked forward to working with Abbott on the proposals over the coming year.

“We’re grateful for Gov. Abbott’s strong commitment to eliminating sexual assault, and his plan to improve criminal law enforcement is a step in the right direction,” Kaiser said.

In addition, Kaiser challenged the governor to address the majority of Texas assault survivors who do not report the crime to law enforcement. They “also need bold investments in the support and advocacy services that help them stay in school, keep their jobs and stay safe,” he said.

One of Abbott’s opponents in the Democratic primary, Andrew White, was unimpressed. “During Greg Abbott’s nearly two decades in politics, human trafficking has become a serious problem. Now, after we’re in crisis mode, he rolls out a plan?” White said. “Texas can do better.”

Abbott’s school-safety proposals would create a do-not-hire list of employees convicted of inappropriate student relationships that would be maintained by the State Board for Educator Certification. Those on the list would be barred from jobs that have contact with students — including teachers, librarians, aides, counselors and nurses — in public, private and charter schools.

The registry, which also would list teachers given deferred adjudication, was proposed last year by state Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, whose bill failed largely because of its $1.8 million cost.

One of the goals, Dale said Tuesday, was to include noncertified teachers and employees to make sure they also did not fall through the cracks.

“We’re glad to take another crack at it,” Dale said. “I wanted to make sure that a registry was available so that all schools — both public and private — could use it to vet potential employees. Unfortunately, like many things in the Legislature, cost is an issue.”

Dale proposed the registry after the American-Statesman, using teacher certification data from the Texas Education Agency, created a first-of-its-kind searchable database of teachers who lost their licenses after being accused of having an improper relationship with a student.

The Statesman found that nearly 60 percent of teachers who were charged with student misconduct were granted deferred adjudication, a form of probation that allows the charge can be dismissed after the terms of the probation are fulfilled.

The number of improper teacher-student relationships grew for the ninth consecutive year in 2017. In the one-year period that ended Sept. 1, the Texas Education Agency opened 302 cases against public school teachers who had been accused of having improper relationships with students, a 36 percent increase from the year before.

Lawmakers last year passed Senate Bill 7 to address the growing number of improper teacher-student relationships. The sweeping legislation makes it easier to charge teachers with the crime and penalizes superintendents and principals for not reporting teacher misconduct.

In his proposal, Abbott also called on the Legislature to give the educator certification board the power to temporarily suspend the teaching certificate of those charged with a sex-related or violent crime.

Lawmakers also should create an online portal to let school officials report accusations of improper teacher-student relationships, he said.