- Julie Chang American-Statesman Staff
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.”
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.
“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 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.