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Senators Tackle Improper Student-Teacher Relationships

Posed with a troubling, social media-driven trend — a steady rise in improper student-teacher relationships — Texas senators began work Monday to figure out what, if anything, they can do about it.

TEA general counsel, Von Byer during the Senate Education Committee on December 7, 2015

Posed with a troubling, social media-driven trend — a steady rise in improper student-teacher relationships — Texas senators began work Monday to figure out what, if anything, they can do about it.

During their first meeting since the legislative session ended, members of the Senate Education Committee wavered between outrage and caution as they took invited testimony on the issue, which is among a slew of public education matters Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asked them to study and make policy recommendations on before lawmakers reconvene in 2017.

The head of a large suburban school district and a big city prosecutor who handles cases involving educator misconduct downplayed the issue with their testimony.

But challenges detailed by the Texas Education Agency, an academic researcher and others sparked strong emotions from committee members, from the rise in student-teacher text messaging and social media communication to state regulators' inability to go after educators who engage in improper relationships with students in other school districts.

“This must be stamped out, period,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.

Doug Phillips, director of educator investigations for the state education agency, said there has been a more than 50 percent increase in the number of investigations into inappropriate student-teacher relationships in Texas in the past seven years. Last school year there were 188, he said, adding that roughly 100 of those accused educators were arrested — but very few were convicted.

It can be difficult for the state to prove educators have incited inappropriate relationships with students because their actions — particularly when it comes to technology and social media — often are not illegal, Phillips said. The agency also struggles to swiftly revoke teaching certificates after those educators have pled no contest and received deferred adjudication; the process can take up to two years, Phillips said.

At Monday's hearing, Denton ISD Superintendent Jamie Wilson described the issue as an ongoing professional development challenge but said there are already clear rules in place that prohibit improper contact and communications.

“I think it’s really difficult to legislate appropriate behavior,” Wilson said. “You have to put some parameters in place ... but to think that you can control for every single thing that could ever happen is not real.”

Katie Warren, a Harris County prosecutor who files as many as 30 cases per year against educators for inappropriate contact with students, said the laws on the books already are sufficient for her to do her job, particularly after the Legislature revised an online solicitation statute this year that had been struck down by the courts. That allowed her to successfully prosecute an educator who had never had any physical contact with a student, she told the panel.

What would help her, she said, is if schools reported incidents to police quicker before evidence is destroyed and stories change. While text messaging and social media are ripe for abuse, she said they also provide a digital trail of evidence. 

David Thompson, an educational leadership professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said there should be greater oversight of text message exchanges between students and teachers and that districts should post their employee handbooks online so parents are aware of conduct expectations. The school officers he’s spoken with as part of his research believe improper student-teacher relationships are not being taken as seriously as they should be, he said.

TEA's Phillips said the fact that his agency now has subpoena power, a recent legislative change, has helped a lot, but that lawmakers should consider holding principals or lower-level administrators — not just superintendents — accountable for reporting such incidents. The automatic revocation of a teacher’s certificate upon conviction would also be helpful, he said.

Upon learning that an Austin-area school district had recently quashed a subpoena from the state to investigate a student-teacher relationship it had reported, Bettencourt said the state should consider slapping penalties on uncooperative districts.

Despite their alarm, several lawmakers — including the committee's chairman, Republican Sen. Larry Taylor of Friendswood — noted the need to “strike a balance” in any recommended policies so educators are not vulnerable to unfounded accusations.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, the only committee member with school-aged children, told her colleagues that text messages between educators and students are an incredibly common occurrence in schools these days and that they are perfectly appropriate in many cases, such as if a coach wants to congratulate a student-athlete on a job well done at practice.

At the same time, there should be guidelines, she said, urging the committee to take “a serious look at” the issue of educators — certified and non-certified — floating from school district to school district to avoid conviction.

“It’s a fine line,” she said.

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