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.
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.
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.
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.”
Over the past fiscal year, at least eight Central Texas teachers have been arrested after police said they engaged in sexual misconduct, including improper relationships with students.
- Ian Edgeley, a former Vista Ridge High School teacher, was arrested in July after police said he had an improper relationship with a senior student. Police said Edgeley’s wife found social media correspondence between the two depicting “sexually explicit material.” The student told school officials that she had a sexual relationship with Edgeley, but that it occurred after she graduated in June. Nude images were sent to Edgeley while she was still a student.
- Jake Fenske, a Hutto High School football coach and science teacher, was arrested in June after police said he had sex with a 16-year-old female student in his classroom, apartment and truck.
- Matthew Wade Burton, a former Manor High School teacher, was accused of luring a 16-year-old former student to a motel room in Austin and performing sexual acts on her. According to the arrest affidavit, he told the girl he was dying of cancer, gave her a total of $3,700 as well as an engagement ring, and asked her to marry him. Burton was arrested on a sexual assault of a child charge in May, and then was arrested a second time on charges of harassment and violating a restraining order after sending threatening text messages and tweets to the student and others named in the restraining order.
- Burnet Middle School Principal David Dean was charged In May with online solicitation of a minor involving an 11-year-old girl, who was also an extended family member, the affidavit said. In the text messages Dean sent, he asked to sleep in her bed and asked, “Do you know what happens to a man when he sleeps?” the affidavit said.
- Tyler Johnson, a former McNeil High School education assistant, was arrested in April after sheriff’s investigators said he had sex with two students — a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old. Johnson said he had sex with the 15-year-old on the playground of Brushy Creek Elementary School.
- Jose Luis Martinez, a former music teacher at Rodriguez Elementary in Austin, was charged in April with possession of child pornography.
- Haeli Wey, a former Westlake High School teacher, was arrested in December after a 17-year-old told police he had sex with her 10 times after he met her at a student ministry program over the summer, police said. Wey was also accused of having a relationship with another 17-year-old student.
- Tiffany Howard, a former Bowie High School health teacher and coach, was arrested in December after police said a student came forward about a relationship that occurred three years prior. According to police records, the relationship was sexual in nature and that Howard provided the girl, a freshman at the time, with alcohol and money whenever she asked.