Districts withhold data from state in 15 teacher misconduct cases

State investigators — who say they are sometimes hampered by school districts that decline to provide information about teachers accused of sexual abuse or improper relationships with students — received subpoena power earlier this year, and they have used it 15 times since Sept. 1.

The Texas Education Agency has released to the American-Statesman copies of five subpoenas it has issued to the Eanes, Pflugerville and El Paso school districts as well as to the United school district in the Laredo area. The TEA, which can sanction and revoke educator licenses, has declined to release the rest of the subpoenas because they are related to investigations that are still open.

Most of the subpoenas the TEA has issued so far involve improper teacher-student relationship cases. Last year, there were 188 cases of improper relationships with students, a record. Since Sept. 1, there have been an additional 41 cases reported to the agency.

Last week, Senate lawmakers who have been charged with addressing an increase in cases of inappropriate teacher-student relationships questioned why a school district would decline to help the TEA.

Districts withhold the information because they are afraid of lawsuits and also to protect their reputations, experts say.

“Most school districts request a subpoena when they would previously have delayed or refused to give documents, or given highly redacted documents, citing confidentiality concerns,” said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.

Officials with the Eanes and Pflugerville school districts said they are always willing to cooperate with the TEA, but that they weren’t sure if they were allowed legally to hand over investigative records that are protected by state and federal privacy laws.

Federal law protects student information, while state law prohibits the release of information reported to Texas Child Protective Services — which many improper teacher-student relationship cases are — and documents that evaluate teachers.

When the TEA was investigating former Pflugerville High School science teacher Richard Ivy this year, the district was swift in releasing documents with redacted student information, said Rhonda McWilliams, executive director of human resources at the district. Ivy, who resigned in April, sent numerous non-work-related Snapchat and Twitter messages to students, sometimes sending pictures of alcoholic beverages, according to records from the TEA.

Once TEA issued the subpoena, Pflugerville officials released all confidential information. McWilliams said the district prefers that in the future, subpoenas are issued when TEA first requests documents.

“Had district officials submitted unredacted documents to TEA prior to the subpoena, the district would not have been in compliance with federal law,” McWilliams said.

The Eanes school district, which was singled out by TEA during last week’s hearing, said lawmakers need to resolve the conflict between TEA’s subpoena authority and privacy laws that leave school districts vulnerable to lawsuits.

“With the current conflict in laws, if Eanes ISD had simply released records after receiving the subpoena, the involved teacher could have challenged the TEA investigation based on improperly released confidential information,” said Eanes attorney Allyson Collins in a letter to the Senate education committee. “In an effort to not jeopardize TEA’s investigation and any potential action taken against the educator, Eanes ISD believes that this legal process was unavoidable.”

The El Paso and United school districts did not return emails for comment.

Lawmakers granted TEA subpoena power Sept. 1 after the agency for years battled with school districts for documents in improper teacher-student investigations. School districts treated information requests as if TEA were any member of the public, redacting names of key witnesses and sometimes entire pages of a teacher’s personnel records.

Last week, Doug Phillips, the director of TEA investigations, told the state Senate education committee that the Eanes school district had issued a motion to quash the subpoena — the second time a school district has done this — involving an investigation of former Westlake High School teacher Haeli Wey. Wey resigned from the school district in October after school officials said she sent inappropriate text messages to a male student.

Phillips’ testimony surprised senators, including Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who helped author the law giving TEA subpoena power. He called quashing a subpoena a stalling tactic.

Eanes maintains it wasn’t trying to “impede or obstruct TEA’s investigation.” The school district released to TEA last week all documents requested under the subpoena after a delegate of the TEA commissioner determined the district should comply with the subpoena.

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