Texas Gov. Greg Abbott Max Faulkner Star-Telegram
Texas teachers found to have had an improper relationship with a student could find it harder to get hired at another school district -- what's known as "passing the trash" -- if Gov. Greg Abbott has his way.
Earlier this week, Abbott revealed his "Preventing Crime, Protecting Texans, Punishing Criminals" policy initiative, which laid out five points of emphasis: Sexual Assault and Other Criminal Sexual Misconduct, Sex and Human Trafficking, Sexual Assault Evidence Testing, GPS Monitoring for Offenders Posing an Immediate Danger and Predatory Educator-Student Relationships.
He hopes to push his plan through the 2019 Legislature.
The predatory educator-student relationships portion is aimed at closing a loophole so teachers and administrators can't end up working in other school districts if their crime hasn't been disclosed to the Texas Education Agency.
Similar measures surrounding predatory student-teacher relationships were proposed 2017 in Senate Bill 653 authored by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, but did not pass.
Abbott's proposal to create a statewide “do-not-hire” registry of educators and other adults barred from school employment due to predatory teacher-student relationships, or other unlawful acts with a minor or student, will serve as additional protocols being implemented to prevent the abuse of students by school employees.
Just a year ago, Abbott covered the topic in his 2017 State of the State Address saying, “Some of those teachers are not prosecuted, and worse. Some are shuffled off to other schools to continue teaching in other areas, threatening other kids.”
According to the TEA, investigators launched investigations into 222 educators based on allegations of improper relationships with students in the 2015-2016 school year. That represented an 80 percent increase in those types of investigations since 2008.
By the end of 2016, the TEA’s team of seven investigators had 1,110 open cases, according to TEA communications manager, Lauren Callahan.
Officials have said the increase in cases can be tied to social media, with educators communicating with students on their smartphones or sites such as Snapchat and Facebook.
Having an improper relationship with a student is a second-degree felony and, in 2016, there were 49 convictions for improper relationships between an educator and a student in Texas.
But because of an often lengthy and complicated process for investigating cases -- which can include police, school districts, TEA and the State Board for Educator Certification -- not all educators who have been fired and/or convicted of improper relationships with students end up on a state clearinghouse list.
"This process (from receipt of case by TEA investigators to SBEC decision) can possibly take years due to outside factors such as the resolution of a criminal matter," said Callahan.
The 85th Legislature did pass Senate Bill 7, which addressed the problem of improper teacher-student relationships on several levels, including: teacher education, increasing channels of communication between investigative entities, requiring the adoption of school electronic communication policies and closing a loophole that had provided that the offense of improper relationship between educator and student only applies when the educator and student are from the same school district.
SB7, which was sponsored by Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, had input from Terri Miller, the President of the Las Vegas-based national prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment of students organization, or S.E.S.A.M.E.
Miller said the governor's recommendations could help cut through the lengthy process.
"I have relatives there so my heart is in Texas and for the children of Texas," said Miller. "The governor's bill is good in the fact that it wants to flag teachers who have offended."
The “do not hire” registry recommendation would result in identifying school employees who have been convicted or placed on deferred adjudication for improper relationships with students.
A person listed on the statewide registry would be prohibited from employment as a teacher, librarian, educational aide, administrator, counselor, school nurse or medical aide, or any other position with direct, unsupervised contact with students.
Abbott also wants that registry to include bus drivers, coaches, trainers, medical health professionals and other adult campus employees who interact with students, whether they are full-time employed professionals or independent contractors. That would require the SBEC to be tasked with housing the list.
Abbott's plan would require all schools -- public, private and charter -- to check the registry before making any final hiring decisions.
The recommendation would give the SBEC authorization to temporarily suspend the teaching certificate for an individual where the individual is criminally charged with a sexual offense.
"Having the SBEC be able to suspend their certificate and propose the revocation is good," said Miller. "But we need to make sure it is revoked."
Miller has helped other states such as Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Washington, Nevada, Missouri and Oregon pass S.E.S.A.M.E. acts or bills aimed at identifying teachers that have been the subject of allegations, investigations or finding of abuse or sexual misconduct involving a child.
"While this proposal by the governor protects them (teachers) from jumping school districts in the state, it doesn't stop the ones coming from states without a S.E.S.A.M.E. bill and entering their state," Miller said.
The governor's second recommendation is to create a secure online portal for school superintendents, principals and charter school directors to report incidences of improper teacher-student relationships.