Teachers accused of impropriety often move to other schools

12:29 p.m Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017 Texas News & Politics
“We have got to stop turning a blind eye to this,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt says.

Mark Calima, a former Cedar Ridge High School band director, resigned from the Round Rock school district in 2015, district records show, after a parent complained that Calima had ridiculed a student for years, saying that the boy was gay and making jokes about it.

Calima also was accused of taking the same boy alone on an off-campus shopping trip, according to the documents. After an investigation, the district removed Calima from the classroom, putting him in an administrative position until he resigned. Calima moved on, taking a band director job in the Spring school district, a previous employer.

Round Rock school district officials didn’t report Calima’s conduct to the Texas Education Agency. Officials said the law didn’t require it.

The TEA is investigating Calima now. New allegations have surfaced that Calima had improper relationships with students more than a decade ago while working as a band director in the Spring district, according to complaints filed with the state and school districts.

Calima did not respond to multiple messages and a phone call for comment.

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An American-Statesman investigation has found that hundreds of teachers surrender their teaching certificates while being investigated by the state for having improper relationships with students, leaving few traces for future employers and the public to find. The Statesman also has found that in a few cases, teachers keep their licenses after district-level investigations, slipping from district to district with nothing in their records flagging questionable conduct.

State lawmakers are proposing sweeping legislation to prevent teachers’ resigning from a school district amid allegations of improprieties with students and moving on to another teaching job.

“Some of those teachers are not prosecuted and worse … some are shuffled off to other schools to continue teaching in other areas, threatening other kids. We are the ones with the duty and the ability to do something about it,” Gov. Greg Abbott told lawmakers in his State of the State address last week.

Under Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 218 proposed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and state Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, superintendents who don’t report allegations of teacher misconduct to the TEA would be charged with at least a Class A misdemeanor. The same penalty would apply to principals who fail to report allegations of teacher misconduct to their superintendents.

“We have got to stop turning a blind eye to this. Let’s find out what’s going on, and let’s do our best to stamp it out,” Bettencourt told the Statesman. The Spring school district falls within Bettencourt’s Senate district.

Cases of improper teacher-student relationships have climbed 80 percent in the past eight years. The TEA opened 222 investigations in fiscal year 2016.

At least half a dozen teachers between 2010 and 2016 had been accused of engaging in improper relationships in a school where they previously worked before moving on to teach in another district, according to a Statesman analysis.

No flags, then troubling accusations

School districts are required to report resignations and terminations to the TEA if the teacher was involved in a romantic relationship with a student, among other improprieties. Round Rock school district spokesman Corey Ryan said Calima’s conduct did not rise to that level.

“We utilize Education Code 21.006 in submitting employees for review. Had we identified any of these issues with Mr. Calima, we would have complied with those reporting requirements,” Ryan said.

Calima returned to teaching at Westfield High School a couple of months after he resigned from the Round Rock school district. According to his online job application to the Spring school district, Calima said he was never investigated for improprieties while working in Round Rock schools.

“Before hiring any employee, Spring ISD follows all standard hiring protocols. That includes conducting a background and reference check that must be clear and successful before the employee is hired,” said spokeswoman Sheleah Reed.

Calima later told Spring officials that the Round Rock school district advised him not to say he was investigated.

Ryan said Round Rock district officials never advised Calima not to disclose the investigation on his job application to Spring.

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New accusations against Calima come from a man who agreed to speak to the Statesman on the condition that he remain anonymous. The man, a former student, said that from 2002 to 2004 he witnessed Calima, a Westfield High School band director in Spring, accusing students of being gay, buying students alcohol and talking to them about their sex lives.

Documents show the former student also filed a complaint with the TEA, which has launched an investigation of Calima that could lead to a revocation of his teaching license.

The former student told the Statesman that at one point Calima invited him to his home and gave him a massage, touching the student, a high school senior at the time, on his lower back, making him feel uncomfortable.

The former student said he didn’t report the incident for more than 10 years because he feared retaliation and felt ashamed. Now he’s in his 30s, and he and his mother reported the conduct to Round Rock district officials in emails and phone calls, and they met with Spring officials.

He said he was prompted to report his experience after seeing media reports about the Round Rock accusations that led him to conclude that Calima hadn’t changed.

“The reason I didn’t come forward is that I liked to tell myself it was over. The real reason was shame,” the former student said.

Spring officials in March questioned Calima about the former student’s allegations. District documents show that Calima denied having a relationship with the former student outside of band, talking to the former student about homosexuality, being out alone with the former student, taking the former student out shopping or purchasing alcohol for students.

“This is very stressful, and I just want to teach. I believe in these kids, and I want to teach them. I love what I do and Westfield,” Calima said, according to the documents.

Calima, who has not been charged with a crime or sanctioned by the TEA, resigned from the Spring district in July.

More legislation needed?

Doug Phillips, director of educator investigations for the TEA, said it’s difficult to know the number of instances of teachers resigning from a district amid allegations of improprieties with students and then moving on to another teaching job.

Christopher Cotten, a former McNeil High School track coach and teacher, was sentenced last year to three years in prison for child indecency and having an improper relationship with a student. In 2015, a 16-year-old student told Williamson County sheriff’s deputies that Cotten had sent her photos of his genitals and kissed and touched her inappropriately, according to an arrest affidavit.

In 2000, when Cotten was a teacher at Austin High School, district officials recorded in his personnel file that he had a “highly inappropriate conversation” with a 14-year-old math student via instant message and should be fired, according to district documents.

He later taught in Pflugerville before getting the job in the Round Rock district.

Austin school district officials have said that they didn’t report Cotten’s behavior to the TEA because the law that requires reporting wasn’t in effect at the time.

Dale, the Cedar Park lawmaker who proposed making failing to report a crime, said some school districts don’t report misconduct to the TEA to avoid lawsuits from teachers and to protect their reputations.

“Look, anybody that’s been hiring people for some period of time is going to hire someone they shouldn’t have hired. I want my school districts and the state’s school districts to have a reputation of zero tolerance on this kind of stuff: If we find out we made a mistake, we’re going to address it swiftly,” Dale said.

Phillips is hopeful that under the threat of a criminal penalty, superintendents and principals will err on the side of overreporting.

To meet the expected rise in the number of teacher misconduct cases, the TEA is requesting additional funding in the 2018-19 budget period to hire two more investigators for Phillips’ department.

Dale and Bettencourt’s bill also would expand the penal code definition of improper relationship between a teacher and student to allow charges in cases in which the teacher and student are in different school districts or private schools. The bills also call for more training of teachers to understand proper teacher-student boundaries, as well as preventing, recognizing and reporting sexual misconduct between teachers and students.

Phillips said that social media have made it easier for teachers to push the boundaries of appropriate conduct with students.

“Since we filed this bill, we have received phone calls from all over the state from concerned parents who have reported heartbreaking stories and some that had not been reported to TEA. It’s just a tragic situation, and it’s one that I think it’s in our power to address and hopefully stop,” Dale said.

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