The Texas Education Agency is seeking to strengthen laws and add resources to better investigate improper teacher-student relationships, which soared to a record 222 new cases during fiscal 2016.
“When it involves a teacher and a student, we have to look into it,” said DeEtta Culbertson, spokeswoman for the TEA.
The TEA is asking for $400,000 in the upcoming legislative session to hire two more investigators and an administrator to handle more cases. The TEA is also suggesting some policy changes, including being allowed access to teacher evaluations and clarifying what must be provided to the TEA and State Board for Educator Certification during an educator investigation.
“For the last decade, we have been working with only seven investigators and unfortunately as these cases continue to grow, our resources are stretched very thin,” Culbertson said.
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The TEA’s seven-person investigative team has 1,100 active investigations of educators involved in wrongdoing, but not all of these reflect “inappropriate relationship with a student/minor” cases.
The 222 cases of inappropriate relationship launched in 2015-16 is an increase of 57 percent from the 141 cases in 2009-10.
Culbertson said officials believe the rise in investigations is largely driven by social media, with educators and students communicating on cellphones or sites such as Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook.
Such was the case with Keshann Jemar Simmons, a former Mansfield school district teacher’s aide who used text messages to solicit sex with a female student. He pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a child under 17 — and admitted having sex with the student in his classroom — and was sentenced to seven years in prison in February.
‘You have to be vigilant’
Fort Worth police Sgt. W.S. Walls, with the crimes against children unit, said police typically investigate five to 10 such cases a year. Police learn of improper relationships from school resource officers, school officials or parents.
“Technology makes a teacher’s access to your child easier,” he said, adding that parents need to be watchful of communication that seems atypical for a teacher and student. For example, is a teacher or coach contacting a student every evening?
“You have to be vigilant and really monitor your kids’ social media habits,” Walls said.
If an educator is arrested, charged or prosecuted for misconduct, superintendents must inform the State Board for Educator Certification. They must also inform the state when misconduct leads to a termination or resignation.
You have to be vigilant and really monitor your kids social media habits.
Fort Worth police Sgt. W.S. Walls
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The TEA investigates cases of teacher-student misconduct and makes recommendations to the state board, which can impose sanctions ranging from a verbal warning to having a teaching certificate revoked.
Not all investigations end up being referred to the state.
For example, the Fort Worth school district’s internal investigation against teacher/coach Johnnie Cole didn’t prompt a state investigation because he wasn’t charged with a crime and his contract was not terminated by the school board.
‘It’s all too common, sadly’
Fighting teacher sexual misconduct is the mission of the Nevada-based group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation, or SESAME. The organization is working with federal and state lawmakers to better protect children from predators in schools, including helping states implement new federal rules that ban school districts from recommending employees who engage in suspected educator sexual misconduct to other school districts.
“Schools should be the safest place outside of the home for a child to be,” said Terri Miller, president of SESAME.
Statistics point to a critical problem, said Miller, who added that nearly 1 in 10 kindergarten through grade 12 students is a victim of educator sexual misconduct.
The misconduct includes a range of actions, including inappropriate sexual discussion to sexual assault, Miller said.
“It’s all too common, sadly,” Miller said.
TEA’s suggested policy changes
Some policy considerations suggested the Texas Education Agency for the upcoming Texas legislative session:
- Strict electronic media policies for educator-student interaction.
- Consider changes to the Texas Education Code regarding superintendent reporting requirements.
- Clarification of what must be provided to the TEA and State Board for Educator Certification during an educator investigation.
- Changes to the state law addressing status as sex offender and ability to maintain an educator license.
- Review Texas Penal Code regarding “Improper Relationship Between Educator and Student.”
- Consider legislation that would allow TEA access to teacher evaluations.
- Consider legislation addressing employment history reviews by hiring school districts.
Source: Texas Education Agency