Why so many Texas teachers accused of improprieties are never charged

11:48 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017 Texas News & Politics

Hundreds of Texas primary and secondary teachers lost or surrendered their teaching licenses since 2010 after being investigated for improper relationships with a student. More than half were never criminally charged. In all of those cases, information about the alleged misconduct isn’t easily accessible from the Texas Education Agency and in many instances is kept secret by school districts, allowing those teachers to move on to other teaching jobs or jobs involving contact with children.

The American-Statesman reviewed the cases of 686 teachers who surrendered their teaching licenses or whose teaching licenses were revoked by the Texas Education Agency between 2010 and 2016, after the TEA launched investigations for possible improper teacher-student relationships. Allegations ran the gamut, including sending flirtatious text messages, kissing students and having sex with students in their classrooms.

The Statesman’s analysis, the first of its kind, found that teachers in less than half the cases were charged, leaving a trail of detailed information for potential future employers, accessible through criminal background checks, court documents and media coverage.

However, for those teachers who voluntarily surrendered their licenses amid investigations into possible improper relationships but who were never charged, basic information — such as the alleged misconduct, the district where the alleged behavior occurred and the age of the student — isn’t readily available to the public from the TEA.

In fact, the education agency doesn’t track whether a teacher has been charged or convicted with a crime as a result of suspected misconduct with students.

The public can check whether a teacher’s license has been sanctioned on the State Board for Educator Certification’s website, but the information there doesn’t specify the type of misconduct, which can include stealing money from district coffers or helping students cheat on tests, as well as sexual improprieties.

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 such teachers.

“If it was inappropriate enough to require them to surrender their certificate, why aren’t there criminal penalties for that?” said Catherine Robert, a former school district human resources official and an education doctoral fellow with the University of Texas at San Antonio. Researchers there are conducting their own analysis of improper teacher-student relationships statewide. “There again is the transparency issue … the lack of transparency.”

Prosecutors say there are several reasons why so many teachers who are initially suspected by school officials to have engaged in improper behavior with students are never charged. In some instances, school districts bungle the case before handing it over to law enforcement agencies. Other times, victims are unwilling to cooperate or there’s not enough evidence to prove a crime. Or the teacher’s alleged behavior doesn’t rise to a level of a crime. There are also built-in legal protections for teachers because they’re public employees.

School officials are required by law to report suspected abuse to police, but it’s not clear whether all cases are reported to authorities.

Documented allegations of improper teacher-student relationships have climbed 80 percent over the last eight years. The TEA opened 222 cases in fiscal 2016.

Lawmakers have said curbing such activity is a priority this legislative session. Bills would make it a crime for superintendents and principals to conceal suspected teacher impropriety from the TEA and would publish the names of all teachers who have lost their licenses as a result of improper teacher-student relationships.

“We now have a bar that shows that, in slightly (more) than half of these cases, nothing happens,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said after being told of the Statesman’s findings. “You also have to remember that they’re innocent until proven guilty. But I think statistics show right now that, either through admission or omission, we’re not getting to the root of what is happening.”

In his State of the State address last week, Gov. Greg Abbott called on lawmakers to crack down on improper teacher-student relationships.

“Teachers who assault children should lose their license, and they should go to jail,” he said to applause from lawmakers. “I want legislation that puts real consequences for those teachers, and we must also penalize the administrators who turn a blind eye to such abuse and pass these teachers along to other schools.”

The Statesman’s analysis of the 686 teachers who lost or surrendered their licenses while under investigation after accusations of improper relationship with a student, between Jan. 1, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2016, found:

• 53 percent were never charged with a crime related to misconduct with a student.

• 40 percent were charged and convicted or given a deferred sentence. Of those, 160 teachers were given deferred adjudication, similar to probation. Only 84 teachers were sentenced to prison or jail time.

• 27 teachers had charges dismissed or weren’t indicted.

The above cases don’t include an additional 441 teachers who, during the same time period, lost their licenses after allegations of sexual misconduct, a different category than improper relationship with a student. The Statesman didn’t analyze those cases because some of them involved alleged improprieties with adults or children not enrolled in a teacher’s school district.

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.

Kissing a student or exchanging flirtatious messages might not constitute a crime, but those acts could lose a teacher his or her license.

Over the seven-year period the Statesman reviewed, 26 teachers in Central Texas lost or surrendered their teaching licenses after the TEA investigated accusations of an improper relationship with a student.

Of those, 14 teachers were never charged with a crime.

One of them was James Edward Matthews, a Bastrop High School assistant principal, who resigned in 2013 after he sent dozens of emails to a student, according to records from the district investigation obtained by the Statesman through a request under the Texas Public Information Act.

Matthews had done favors for the student — “all of my hard work taking care of you,” he called them in a copy of an email the district shared — including addressing a physics teacher about the student’s grade after she became frustrated with a C in the class. Their close relationship culminated in a kiss on the last day of the student’s senior year in the school’s book storage room, according to the district records.

“Never more beautiful,” he later texted her, according to the records.

Bastrop police investigated it but said there wasn’t enough evidence that a crime had been committed, according to district records.

According to a letter from the school district to the TEA reporting Matthews’ alleged misconduct, Matthews denied that “there had been any inappropriate relationship or wrong doing.”

Matthews, who surrendered his teaching license two weeks after the state launched its investigation, didn’t respond to multiple calls for comment or a message left with a family member.

Richard Ivy, a science teacher, resigned from Pflugerville High School in April 2015 and gave up his teaching license later that year. District officials said Ivy sent text messages and Snapchat messages to a student Ivy said he loved and missed, according to the district’s investigation summary obtained by the Statesman through an open records request.

Ivy told the student she was beautiful and told her that if he were in high school, “she’s the kind of girl he’d go after,” according to district documents. He also hugged a student — district records are unclear whether it was the same girl — with his hand below her waist, according to district documents.

In his resignation letter, Ivy said some of his communication with students over social media “was unacceptable and inappropriate” and “I take full responsibility for my actions.” He didn’t address the specific alleged misconduct in the letter or elsewhere in documents provided by the school district.

Neither Ivy nor his attorney responded to the Statesman’s requests for comment.

The school district said in documents that Ivy’s actions could reasonably be interpreted “as soliciting a romantic relationship,” but Pflugerville school district Police Chief Jason Smith said there was no evidence of sexual contact, so Ivy wasn’t charged.

“As you’re starting to see these instances become more and more popular, I think that the laws will become more strict to address the verbiage. It’s unfortunate, but we just lacked the evidence to support filing the charges,” Smith said.

Beverly Mathews, director of the special victims division at the Travis County district attorney’s office, said persuading victims to cooperate is among the biggest hurdles in prosecuting improper teacher-student cases.

Teachers often tell students to keep their relationship secret, so students fear being punished if they report the impropriety. Other students fear embarrassment and blame by their peers for tattling on a teacher, she said. “It’s always difficult for a child of any age to talk about something so private, that had been so secret.”

It doesn’t help that many of the teachers are well-liked by colleagues and students, according to Doug Phillips, TEA investigations director.

Even when a victim offers a statement, prosecutors typically need other evidence or another witness. Otherwise, it’s the teacher’s word against the student’s.

Katie Warren, a prosecutor who typically handles improper teacher-student relationship cases in Harris County, said some teachers can avoid charges even if they confessed to misconduct to district officials. Case law protects public employees from incriminating themselves during internal investigations by employers.

“It fits under the category that there just may not be usable evidence to be used to charge somebody. It’s not just as black and white as did you do it or not,” Warren said.

Warren has testified before lawmakers about school district officials who prevent cases from being properly investigated. School district leaders have intentionally hidden information about teacher misconduct to protect the district’s reputation, she said. More often, however, district officials have good intentions but mishandle cases because they lack the investigative expertise of a law enforcement agency, she said.

District officials might unintentionally tip off teachers to an investigation, giving them an opportunity to wipe computers and cellphones of possible evidence. Administrators’ priorities are typically to remove the accused teacher from the classroom, not to secure evidence to charge the teacher, Warren said.

Once the case enters the criminal justice system, however, there’s no guarantee that the teacher will be convicted, much less serve jail time, especially if the teacher is young and a first-time offender.

State law defines improper relationship between educator and student as when a primary or secondary teacher engages in sexual contact or intercourse with a student who is enrolled or involved in activities at their campus. A teacher can be charged with having an improper relationship with a student, a second-degree felony, even if the student is legally an adult — 17 or older.

But sympathetic jurors and judges might not want to convict, since the charge carries a hefty penalty — up to 20 years in prison, said Allen Place, an Austin defense attorney and member of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

“It really shows how difficult these cases are. At the end of the day, I think that a lot of them are in situations where it was not some sort of predatory conduct,” Place said of cases involving students who are 17 or older. “It was clear that the teacher made an error and probably won’t be doing it again and is paying a penalty in so many ways.”

The median age of teachers who were charged and analyzed by the Statesman was 34. More than a third of teachers were in their 20s.

The TEA doesn’t track the age of students with whom teachers have been accused of engaging in misconduct.

Less than a third of teachers in the Statesman analysis who were convicted received prison sentences. Nearly 60 percent of those charged were granted deferred adjudication probation, which means the charge can be dismissed as long as the terms of the probation are fulfilled.

Prosecutors and judges prefer giving deferred adjudication over traditional probation because the former can carry a harsher penalty if a teacher violates the terms of the probation, Warren said.

School districts are bound by student privacy laws that restrict the public release of some information.

School district officials, however, have abused the laws to hide information from not only the public but from investigators at the TEA, said Phillips, the agency’s investigations director. Districts have returned requests for documents with full pages of information redacted, he said.

After well-publicized struggles to obtain information, the Legislature gave the TEA authority to subpoena information in such cases. Even so, Phillips has clashed with district officials, including those in the Eanes school district, which cited legal concerns when it fought subpoenas for information about a high school math teacher accused of engaging in sexual acts with two 17-year-old students. That teacher, Haeli Wey, 29, pleaded guilty Friday to two counts of improper relationship with a student.

District officials can successfully resist subpoenas by invoking attorney-client privilege. But a newly filed bill would expand the TEA’s authority to subpoena witnesses.

“Interviews that they conducted and the investigation have become a work product and we can’t get it,” Phillips said.

The Statesman requested the records of 12 Central Texas cases of teachers who weren’t charged but who lost or surrendered their licenses after allegations of improper teacher-student relationships. Details about seven of the teachers were released.

Some of the school districts only released the information after appeals to the Texas attorney general, who ruled that the districts must release the records.

The Hays and Del Valle school districts provided personnel records and the resignation letters from former teachers who had lost their licenses, but none of the documents detailed why they left their jobs.

Law enforcement agencies and district attorney offices were no more transparent.

Christopher Godwin, then a 36-year-old finance teacher at Bowie High School in South Austin, resigned in 2011 after police said he had sent several Skype messages to a 17-year-old student. In the messages, the two had talked about loving each other, the smell of one another on their clothing and marrying as soon as the girl “crosses the stage” for graduation, according to a search warrant issued by the Austin school district’s Police Department.

Police said in the warrant they found several searches for Tiffany engagement rings on Godwin’s computer.

District documents didn’t note whether Godwin admitted to or denied the Police Department’s findings. Godwin surrendered his teaching license a day after the education agency launched its review of the case, state documents show.

Attempts to obtain a comment from Godwin via multiple calls to phone numbers listed in public records, a social media message to his wife, and an email to the address listed in district documents weren’t answered.

“AISD PD cannot release details on investigations when no charges were filed. This protects individuals from false accusations,” school district spokesman Jacob Barrett said. He said the investigation has been suspended but wouldn’t say why.

Mathews, the Travis County prosecutor, didn’t comment on the case.

Carrie Strmiska, at the time a 45-year-old, eighth-grade English teacher at Chisholm Trail Middle School in the Round Rock school district, resigned in 2012 after a teacher reported rumors of Strmiska posting on Twitter, where she had student followers, of her masturbating and another of her sleeping on a couch in her classroom because of a hangover, according to documents obtained by the Statesman through an open records request to the school district.

A teacher also reported rumors of Strmiska having a relationship with one of his former students, according to district documents.

In a letter to the TEA, Round Rock school district officials said they weren’t given many details about what happened but “were told that an arrest would be made and that Ms. Strmiska confessed.”

Strmiska was never charged with a crime. The Williamson County sheriff’s office wouldn’t say if or how the case was resolved, asking instead for an open records request. The Statesman made such a request, but the sheriff’s office is appealing to the Texas attorney general’s office to deny the release of documents.

Strmiska, who gave up her teaching license in December 2012, didn’t respond to multiple phone or email messages for comment.

State Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, said he plans to file a bill that would create a database of teachers who have lost or surrendered teaching licenses after allegations of improper relationships with a student are reported to the TEAincluding those who were never charged.

“I’m not aware that this data is readily accessible today, and it needs to be accessible,” he said.

Under Dale’s proposal, “the public has access to it, private schools can see it, charter schools can see it, and potential employers in other states can have access to it so that we can keep these people away from kids,” Dale said. “If you lose your license because of a situation like that, it’s serious enough to let everyone else know. My intent is to show that Texas is a zero-tolerance state.”

The Statesman compiled the first public database of teachers who have lost and surrendered their teaching licenses after allegations of an improper relationship with a student, whether they were charged and if they convicted. Where available, the database gives details, including media coverage, of each case.

Generally, teachers lacking a teaching license cannot teach in Texas public schools. There are exceptions, however.

Charter schools, private schools and even some traditional school districts can hire teachers without licenses. School districts can become so-called districts of innovation, which gives them freedom from certain state laws to change how they educate students. That also means hiring teachers without teaching licenses.

There were 85 districts of innovation in Texas as of Feb. 3. The Round Rock, Eanes, Manor, Hutto, Lake Travis and Dripping Springs school districts are among them.

It wasn’t clear from public documents whether any of the accused teachers the Statesman reviewed were rehired by Texas schools.

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