STATESMAN EXCLUSIVE: Improper teacher-student relationship cases soar


The Texas Education Agency opened 302 investigations into teacher-student relationships over the last year.

Other types of teacher misconduct cases also grew.

The Texas Education Agency attributes the growth to increased awareness of teacher misconduct.

Amid increasing scrutiny from top state officials of teachers accused of soliciting romantic relationships from students, the number of such cases has jumped for the ninth year in a row.

In the one-year period that ended Sept. 1, the Texas Education Agency opened 302 cases against public teachers who have been accused of having improper relationships with students, a 36 percent increase from the year before. The most recent data show the biggest one-year jump in almost a decade.

“That’s just a huge number, to go 80 (cases) above,” said Doug Phillips, TEA’s director of educator investigations. “We’ve amped up the pressure to report, and we’ve made people more aware.”

READ: Why so many Texas teachers accused of improprieties are never charged

Among those educators investigated over the last year is Lockhart High School science teacher Sarah Fowlkes, who gained notoriety for smiling in her mug shot. A 17-year-old student told investigators that she touched his genitals and that he touched her breasts, according to an arrest affidavit.

The TEA opened an investigation on Sept. 6 of Karl Waggoner, who has been charged with luring minors for sex in Arizona. Waggoner left the Round Rock school district in August 2016 and previously had worked in the Eanes and Austin school districts. Local school district officials said they are not aware of complaints against him here.

Investigators also saw a jump in the number of cases of teachers accused of using drugs — 249 cases — and of being violent — 278 cases. Some of those cases involve teachers using drugs or being violent outside the classroom; the TEA can revoke or sanction a teacher’s teaching license if he or she is charged with a crime.

Phillips attributes the growth of teacher misconduct cases to increased vigilance of recognizing and reporting improper behavior among teachers and administrators. Much of the awareness has been ushered in by state lawmakers, who made curbing improper teacher-student relationships a priority during this year’s regular legislative session.

Senate Bill 7

The Legislature passed Senate Bill 7, increasing the penalty against principals and superintendents who fail to report teacher misconduct. Superintendents and principals, who previously faced loss of their professional license for failing to report teacher misconduct, now could be fined $10,000 and jailed for up to two years. The law took effect Sept. 1.

DATA: Find Texas teachers accused of improper relationships with students

“As surprised as I was to see that end up in the bill, the threat of being fined up to $10,000 has an impact,” Phillips said. “I just think that Senate Bill 7 had the effect of ramping up the concern.”

SB 7 also closes a loophole that made it difficult to prosecute a teacher who had sex with a student who attends school at a different district from where the teacher works.

It requires school districts to adopt a policy that sets boundaries for students and teachers when it comes to texting, emailing and using social media and other electronic communication. Electronic communication allows teachers to more easily develop an unsupervised intimate relationship with students.

Sometimes teachers forget that they can be out of a job for their behavior online and for engaging in a platonic relationship with a student that became romantic, said Paul Tapp, managing attorney with the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

“The rules require (the TEA) to revoke the certificate of any educator who has solicited a romantic relationship, which is a far, far less extreme behavior than actually engaging in sexual relationship,” said Tapp, who provides teacher training on the topic. “There are educators who find themselves in a situation they never thought they would be in because they have become emotionally involved with a student initially for all the right reasons and … they’ve lost perspective.”

Officials with the teacher group supported the bill, but noted that a fraction of a percent of the state’s 350,000 teachers are reported each year to TEA for misconduct.

Austin cases

Austin school district officials reported one improper student-teacher relationship to the TEA in the 2016-17 school year, four the year before and one two years ago. District officials refused to provide the teachers’ names. The American-Statesman has requested the information under the Texas Public Information Act.

The district has an electronic communication policy that meets the requirements of SB 7. Officials expect to train all employees by Sept. 29 about appropriate boundaries and recognizing improper behavior between teachers and students.

Round Rock school district officials also said they have or are working to comply with provisions of SB 7.

School district officials have been more cooperative this year in providing information to TEA investigators, which hasn’t always been the case, Phillips said.

The TEA is planning on hiring two more investigators, increasing the number to 10. The new hires could lower the average time to close cases from 110 days to fewer than 100.

Once the TEA receives a report, investigators will determine whether the incident occurred and whether the teacher’s license should be sanctioned and revoked. School districts typically also report teacher misconduct to police and Child Protective Services.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Texas News & Politics

Florida deputy fatally shoots wife, then himself with kids in home 
Florida deputy fatally shoots wife, then himself with kids in home 

A Florida sheriff’s deputy fatally shot his wife Monday morning before shooting himself in an apparent murder-suicide, the Tampa Bay Times reported. >> Read more trending news  Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said four children were in the home at time of the shooting. He said the deputy, whose name has not been released, worked...
ACC, Facebook partnering to develop digital media marketing program
ACC, Facebook partnering to develop digital media marketing program

Austin Community College and Facebook Inc. are partnering to develop a certificate program in digital marketing. A vital goal of the program is to help people in small businesses and job seekers gain skills that are increasingly important as more and more commerce and communication shift to online platforms. A formal announcement of the partnership...
FORECAST: Overcast, slight chance of rain, high of 86
FORECAST: Overcast, slight chance of rain, high of 86

Monday forecast for Austin: Mostly cloudy skies will greet Central Texas as temperatures are forecast to reach the upper 80s, which is normal for this time of year, the National Weather Service said. Austin temperatures are expected to peak at 86 degrees with a 20 percent chance of rain, forecasters said. Temperatures should drop to a mild 72 degrees...
UPDATE: Parmer Lane in Northeast Austin reopened after crash cleared
UPDATE: Parmer Lane in Northeast Austin reopened after crash cleared

6:50 p.m. update: Parmer Lane has been cleared after rescue crews extricated a person trapped in a two-car collision, medics said. Parmer Lane had been shut down near the Harris Ridge Boulevard intersection for approximately 30 minutes while crews worked to free the crash victim. No one was taken to the hospital. Earlier: One person is entrapped in...
After Saturday’s ‘rain bomb,’ more showers might be in sight this week
After Saturday’s ‘rain bomb,’ more showers might be in sight this week

The rainwater that engorged the San Gabriel River above 24 feet Saturday left as quickly as it came. By the afternoon, the floodwaters that displaced several families from an RV park and trapped dozens of people at a wedding venue near Liberty Hill had receded. “It really and truly is a wave of water that goes through” the river, said Jarred...
More Stories