Hearing: School districts interfere with teacher misconduct cases

Child advocates and state officials pressed Texas legislators Wednesday to rein in school districts that fail to report teachers accused of engaging in romantic relationships with students.

School districts came under scrutiny during a state House Public Education Committee hearing in which experts and the Texas Education Agency offered recommendations on curbing the state’s growing number of improper teacher-student relationships.

School districts, which have sometimes hampered investigations out of fear of ruining their reputation or of being sued, shouldn’t handle investigations on their own but instead cooperate with investigators from police departments, Child Protective Services and the Texas Education Agency, said Christina Green with Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas.

Panelists also asked lawmakers to bar school districts from allowing accused teachers to resign quietly.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said the practice allows some guilty teachers to prey upon students in other districts — a phenomenon called “passing the trash.”

“This issue is obviously of great concern. We have superintendents allowing teachers to resign” after misconduct, Huberty said Wednesday. “Shame on that school district.”

David Thompson, an education professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, suggested that lawmakers could avoid problems and protect children by subjecting superintendents to criminal or civil penalties if they fail to report suspected teacher misconduct.

Several states, including Pennsylvania, require teacher applicants to disclose if they’ve been the subject of an improper-relationship investigation, even if the findings were unsubstantiated.

Passing the trash, Thompson said, “erodes the public’s trust in our elected and appointed school officials.”

Between Sept. 1 and March 31, the Texas Education Agency opened investigations on 114 teachers accused of having improper relationships with students. The agency investigated 85 teachers during the same period last year, putting the state on track to surpass last year’s record number — 188.

After an investigation, the agency can issue sanctions or revoke a teacher’s license for misconduct.

Lawmakers gave the TEA subpoena power Sept. 1 after the agency complained that some school districts were withholding information during misconduct investigations, including the names of key witnesses and entire pages from personnel records.

Doug Phillips, TEA head of investigations, said Wednesday that although subpoena power has helped resolve cases quicker, school districts still find loopholes to withhold documents.

Green asked lawmakers to consider requiring school districts to leave teacher misconduct investigations and forensic interviews up to the experts — CPS, law enforcement and child advocacy centers — who aren’t as concerned about the district’s public image.

“Joint investigations are best practice,” Green said.

Panelists also recommended beefing up teacher training on ethics and proper communication boundaries, as well as creating policies that prohibit unsupervised communication between teachers and students.

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