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Help Wanted to Investigate Student-Teacher Relationships

Faced with growing state attention on improper student-teacher relationships, the Texas Education Agency is asking lawmakers for hundreds of thousands of additional dollars to help investigate them — plus new legislation.

Texas Education Agency investigator Doug Phillips testifies on punishing educators for inappropriate student-teacher relationships during a public hearing Dec. 7, 2015 before the Senate Education Committee.

*Correction appended. 

The Texas Education Agency — grappling with growing reports of improper student-teacher relationships — is asking state lawmakers for hundreds of thousands of additional dollars to help investigate them. 

In its funding request for the the next two-year budget, the agency has asked for an extra $400,000 to hire two more investigators and one administrator for its educator investigations unit, which has seen a surge in cases of educators engaging in inappropriate relationships with students.  

But the agency's needs go beyond money. Officials hope Texas lawmakers pass legislation to help curb such cases, including requiring school districts to immediately revoke the teaching licenses of sex offenders, subjecting superintendents to criminal penalties if they fail to report improper relationships and giving the TEA authority to compel witnesses to testify. 

While school district leaders say they'll get behind any legislation that protects children, they're not sure this is the right approach. Buck Gilcrease, Alvin ISD superintendent and the chair of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said the laws necessary to crack down on inappropriate student-teacher relationships are "already on the books."

"I think most school districts and most employers of people where this happens have offered sufficient training," Gilcrease said. "I personally feel it comes down to terrible, immoral actions done by those people."

But Doug Phillips, the TEA's director of educator investigations, said those bad actions are strapping the state's resources. At the end of the last fiscal year, the agency had just seven investigators to manage 1,110 open investigations — 222 of which involved improper student-teacher relationships. Two years prior, the agency had 866 open investigations, including 179 improper student-teacher cases. 

"Needless to say, if we had two more investigators, we would be able to spread those cases out more and we would be able to get to those cases a little faster," Phillips said. "I have every reason to believe that that case number will continue to increase."

State officials say they're seeing more cases of student-teacher relationships for a couple of reasons: First, the proliferation of social media and texting has made private communication between students and teachers easier. Second, reporting has improved. 

But Phillips said there's still a long way to go to hold educators accountable. Some superintendents simply choose not to renew the contracts of offending teachers or coaches instead of reporting their offenses and terminating their contracts. 

"It’s cheaper to non-renew a person or to let them just leave on their own than it is to terminate them for districts," Phillips said, because when employees fight the termination of their contracts, legal costs mount for districts. 

That gives those teachers and coaches a chance to get hired by other districts, said state Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, who is working with the education agency ahead of the 2017 legislative session to draft a bill addressing its needs. 

Case in point: In March, the Austin-American Statesman reported that Christopher Cotten, a former Round Rock ISD teacher and coach, had pleaded guilty to indecency with a child after engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a student. In 2000, Cotten had resigned from Austin ISD amid similar allegations, but he was later hired by the Pflugerville and Round Rock school districts. School officials at these districts say they were never told about his improper behavior in Austin when they called for references. 

Right now, "the acquiring school districts don’t necessarily know [the educator] had this in their history," Dale said. 

Among Dale's legislative priorities is immediately revoking the teaching licenses of registered sex offenders. But he also has top administrators in his sights.

Currently, the State Board of Educator Certification can sanction superintendents for failing to report improper relationships, but it's not a violation of criminal law. Dale wants to add criminal penalties for superintendents who fail to report such cases — and said his colleagues in the Legislature might also choose to include principals, who work closer to school campuses than superintendents.

Dale also said his legislation would apply to inappropriate relationships between educators and students who aren't in the same school district; existing state laws only apply to those within a single district, he said.  

This won't be the first session lawmakers have considered improper student-teacher relationships. In 2015, they passed a bill to allow the education agency to subpoena documents from school districts to investigate such cases.

Dale said some school districts have responded by redacting the information the agency is seeking under attorney-client privilege, and refusing to send witnesses to testify. If Dale's bill passes, he said, the TEA will be able to compel witnesses to testify. 

Doug Killian, superintendent of Hutto ISD, said he thinks reporting procedures are already clear — he reported his first case of an improper student-teacher relationship this year — and "I don’t know if more laws are going to make this situation any better." Teachers in Killian's district already undergo training and must adhere to strict guidelines on social media communication with students. The teacher he reported went through all the training and still violated the code, he said. 

"You can have all the training and all the laws and procedures in place, but you’re going to have people that try to violate that or go around it," Killian said.

But he added: "If there’s more laws that have to come out to hold people accountable, I’ll be testifying for it." 

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the State Board of Education can sanction superintendents. It is the State Board of Educator Certification. 

Disclosure: The Texas Association of School Administrators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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