Cases of improper teacher-student relationships hit 8-year high



Highlights

In 2016, the Texas Education Agency opened 222 investigations, the most in eight years.

The Texas Education Agency is asking the Legislature to approve two more investigators.

The number of Texas teachers accused of having improper relationships with students has climbed for the eighth year in a row, adding to a bloated caseload for state investigators.

The Texas Education Agency launched investigations on 222 teachers in fiscal 2016, which ended Aug. 31. The latest count is an 80 percent increase from 2008.

The steady rise in the number of cases has inundated the agency’s investigators, who are tasked with sanctioning and revoking teaching licenses. Currently, the seven-investigator team has 1,110 open cases.

In its budget request to the Legislature for the 2018-2019 biennium, the agency has asked for $400,000 to hire two more investigators and an administrator for its investigations unit. Meanwhile, lawmakers are preparing bills to require registered sex offenders to surrender their teaching licenses and to eliminate a loophole that attorneys representing school districts use to keep information from state investigators.

“We can always use more help,” said Doug Phillips, director of investigations for the education agency.

READ: Districts withhold data from state in 15 teacher misconduct cases

The largest jump in the number of improper teacher-student relationship cases over the last eight years occurred in the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31.

Phillips said the use of social media has fueled the growth of the improper relationships. Such platforms give teachers more opportunities to push professional and personal boundaries with students, while at the same time creating a record of those exchanges that can be used later as evidence.

“It just seems like every one of them … involves … some sort of texting or Snapchatting with kids,” Phillips said.

Strengthening TEA

The Texas Education Agency investigates all teacher misconduct, including sexual misconduct, misuse of state funds, burglary, theft and hazing, but improper relationships with students make up the bulk of the cases. Most of the investigations are done from the agency’s offices in Austin because the unit doesn’t have a travel budget.

New investigators would help reduce the average time cases stay open, which is currently 113 days, Phillips said.

That average doesn’t include suspended cases that involve teachers who have been arrested. Such cases can take years to close because TEA waits until a court rules, which typically informs how the agency sanctions a teaching license. Phillips said his unit doesn’t want to interfere with criminal investigations, and relying on a court’s ruling allows the agency to work on cases that might not rise to a crime.

At any given time, half of TEA’s open cases are suspended.

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Although an improper teacher-student relationship is narrowly defined in the penal code as involving sexual contact or online solicitation of a minor, the education agency can sanction or revoke teaching certificates based on lesser misconduct, including developing a romantic relationship with a student. Superintendents are required to report misconduct to the state within seven days if it has led to the termination or resignation of a teacher.

Phillips said that he would like lawmakers to expand reporting requirements to principals.

Typically, school districts terminate or put on leave teachers who have been accused of improper relationships with students while TEA investigates the teachers. To deter the teacher from landing another classroom job during an investigation, the agency immediately flags the teacher’s certification once it opens a case.

Lawmakers gave the TEA subpoena power Sept. 1, 2015, 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.

Phillips that, although subpoena power has helped resolve cases quicker, school districts still find loopholes to withhold documents.

At a hearing before lawmakers in December, Phillips singled out the Eanes school district after the district tried to quash a subpoena from the TEA for more information about Haeli Wey. Wey is a former Westlake High School math teacher who was charged with having improper relationships with two 17-year-old students.

Officials with the Eanes district have said they are always willing to cooperate with the TEA, but that they weren’t sure if they could legally hand over investigative records that are protected by state and federal privacy laws. The school district has since handed over all documents related to Wey’s case.

Since the Eanes incident, school districts haven’t fought a subpoena from TEA, Phillips said, but some lawmakers have admonished school districts for failing to cooperate with investigations.

State Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, said he plans to propose legislation next year to strengthen reporting requirements and give harsher penalties to those who don’t report suspected improper relationships. He said some school officials try to hide the existence of the teacher’s relationship with a student in a file other than the district’s human resources file. This allows the teacher to quietly resign and move on to another school district, Dale said.

“Why would a school do that? I think there’s two reasons,” Dale said. “One has to do with perceived liability, like, ‘Hey, if I give Joe a bad reference and he can’t get employed, he’ll come back and sue me.’ And then … the other aspect, sadly, has to do with … a reputation issue — ‘I don’t want my school known as a school that hired someone like this in the first place.’”

Phillips also said he would like broader authority to investigate teachers who don’t have teaching licenses. Some public schools, particularly charter schools, aren’t required to hire certified teachers. If they’re accused of misconduct, they can quietly resign and move on to another school district.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said he wants to propose legislation requiring teachers to fill out a form when they’re applying for a teaching job to disclose whether they’ve been investigated in any statefor having improper contact with a student.

Tightening the penal code

Currently, an educator or district employee can escape criminal conviction if the relationship occurred with a student who is in a different school district. Bettencourt doesn’t believe whether the teacher or student were in the same district should matter. “That is a hole we are going to plug,” Bettencourt said.

Bettencourt also wants to propose legislation that immediately revokes the teaching licenses of teachers who receive deferred adjudication probation for having an improper relationship with a student. Currently, such a revocations typically happen with a felony conviction. Even the teaching licenses of registered sex offenders who have been given deferred adjudication probation aren’t revoked immediately. Dale also wants to change that.

“If you’re on a sex offender registry list, you should not be teaching in Texas schools, period,” Dale said. “Fortunately, most of the teachers that are out there are good teachers. We just need to make sure to retain and love our good teachers and make sure that people who are going to be harmful to kids are not part of our school system.”



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