Accusations of teachers having improper relationships with students have become more common. Yet, only a few of the hundreds of teachers in Texas accused of inappropriate behavior ever make headlines. When they do, it’s most likely those teachers will end up with a criminal record. Many others don’t.
While there are no foreseeable changes to the inescapable world of social media that has facilitated inappropriate communication between teacher and student, there are plenty of solutions that can help curb such activity.
At the state level, for example, thoughtful legislation that creates transparency of incidents involving improper relationships and also protects students without infringing on due process rights of educators in question are a good start. Locally, school districts can adopt updated, clearly defined policies while requiring teacher training on proper student/teacher relationships.
Measures must be taken at all levels to ensure predatory adults do not bounce from school to school, which an American-Statesman investigation by reporter Julie Chang found to happen frequently in Texas. Even behaviors that may not be criminal can be scarring and, in some cases could be precursors to later criminal acts. It’s time for change.
Since 2010, hundreds of teachers in Texas have been accused of improper relationships with students. Tracking them all is almost impossible. In fact, a majority of teachers accused of questionable behavior surrendered their teaching certificate and faced no other repercussion for their actions, according to the findings of the American-Statesman’s investigation.
In those situations, information about the alleged misconduct is not easily accessible from the Texas Education Agency because the organization does not track whether a teacher has been charged or convicted with a crime as a result of suspected misconduct with students. In addition, state law prohibits teachers who lose or surrender their licenses from teaching at a traditional public school — but it doesn’t keep charter schools or private schools from hiring them.
Making tracking more difficult are school districts that choose to keep such incidents secret to protect their reputations. Some like Eanes go as far as to require the state agency to file a subpoena to access records for its investigations.
Proposed legislation aims to force that change.
Senate Bill 7 filed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and House Bill 218, filed by Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, would prevent teachers’ resigning from a school district amid allegations of improprieties with students and moving on to another teaching job. The bills would also require publishing the names of all teachers who have lost their licenses as a result of improper teacher-student relationships.
HB 218 also reasonably requires that anyone who applies for a teaching job must disclose in an affidavit whether he or she has been accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a minor and whether the allegations were found to be true.
Yes, SB 7 and HB 218 offer sensible solutions, but they also offer reason for caution.
An improper relationship with a student is narrowly defined in the penal code as involving sexual contact or online solicitation of a student in the same school district as the teacher, but the education agency can sanction or revoke teaching certificates for a wider range of behavior. For example: Kissing a student or exchanging flirtatious messages might not constitute a crime, but those acts could cost a teacher to lose his or her license.
If lawmakers aren’t careful, overreaching legislation could create near-irreversible damage for an educator whose actions were a result of bad judgment and not criminal intent. For that reason, new legislation must clearly define distinctions between criminal and inappropriate behavior as well as identify proper punishment to fit the offense.
Legislation must protect students from predatory behavior — but it should not be quick to condemn educators over allegations not yet proven. The burden shouldn’t all fall on the state’s shoulders. School districts must be more vigilant about protecting children and be more transparent about questionable teacher-student relationships.
School districts should provide clear policy that clearly delineates appropriate and inappropriate behavior and defines what constitutes as terminable offense. Districts must also provide and require updated teacher training on proper teacher-student relationships. Technology and the ways teachers communicate with their students will only continue to change very quickly. Training material for teachers must keep up with that quick pace.
School districts cannot afford to put their reputations before the safety of children. Parents and community members appreciate school administrators who lean on the side of caution and report questionable teacher-student relationships. They think less highly of those districts that allow a bad actor to get away to hurt others.
Transparency doesn’t stop at reporting an incident to the Texas Education Agency. It must also ensure that the records of teachers involved in such situations give details of the accusation and how the problem was handled. If there is a problem with student privacy, as some school officials suggest, it should not become a crutch for allowing inappropriate behavior to continue or for perpetuating a system that allows bad actors to be passed on to other teaching jobs.
Teaching colleges at universities can do their part educating students how to use social media effectively without crossing ethical and professional lines. At home, parents should have open discussions with their children — regardless of grade level — about what they should expect of teachers.
While most teachers act professionally in their jobs, there are some bad apples. School districts should get rid of them and stop passing the trash.