According to by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the state of Texas has a “plague” in its school system—improper relationships between educators and students. Reportedly, this plague has been spreading since 2010.
In a January 2015 article, the Washington Post reported that of the 781 documented cases of improper educator/student relationships, 179 of those cases occurred in Texas which represented a 27 percent increase from the years 2011 through 2013.
The same year the Post article appeared Katie Warren, the prosecutor who handles most of the prosecutions involving improper educator/student relationships brought by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, told a legislative panel that her job would be easier if school officials reported these relationships in a timelier manner and did not destroy evidence in the process.
School Administrators Accused of Coverup
Warren and children advocates have consistently charged that some school administrators cover up these improper relationships because they do not want the reputation of their school districts tarnished.
The scope of this problem can be measured by both the action and inaction of the Texas Education Agency (TEA).
In the 2016-17 school year (August through April), the TEA opened159 investigations into reports of improper educator/student relationships while simultaneously keeping secret inquiries into a slew of other such reports.
On January 10, 2017, the 85th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature opened for business, and a significant part of its business was a bill introduced by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and co-authored by all 30 senators, tailored to curb what Bettencourt called a “statewide plague” of improper educator/student relationships.
Governor Gets into the Act
In his January 31, 2017 State of the State address, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott effectively urged all lawmakers to stamp out this plague that is causing the state national embarrassment and to implement the kind of reforms Warren and children advocates had been pushing since 2015.
“Teachers who assault children should lose their license, and they should go to jail,” the governor said. “I want legislation that puts real consequences for those teachers, and we must also penalize the administrators who turn a blind eye to such abuse and pass these teachers along to other schools.”
Less Than Half of Cases Lead to Criminal Charges
The week after Abbott’s call to action, the Austin American-Statesman disclosed the results of its investigation that found 686 cases involving teachers who had surrendered their teaching licenses or had them revoked by the TEA between 2010 and 2016.
In a first of its kind analysis, the Statesman found that “teachers in less than half of the cases were charged, leaving a trail of detailed information for potential future employers, accessible through criminal background checks, court documents and media coverage.”
However, the Statesman pointed out that “for those teachers who voluntarily surrendered their licenses amid investigations into possible improper relationships but who were never charged, basic information – such as the alleged misconduct, the district where the alleged behavior occurred and the age of the student – isn’t readily available to the public from the TEA.”
Tough New Law Cracks Down on Teachers, Administrators
It took the legislature and the Governor less than five months to get a new law passed that, as the Dallas News reported, “cracks down on teachers who have sex and other inappropriate relationships with students.”
The new law, which became effective September 1, removes the issue of school superintendents and principals failing to report such relationships from the State Board of Education Certification (which had the authority to impose sanctions) to prosecutors like Warren who can now file criminal charges against these school officials.
School administrators can now be prosecuted for a state jail felony if they intentionally try to hide educator/student misconduct punishable by a sentence of 180 days to two years and a fine up to $10,000. The new law also provides:
- Teachers can now be charged with an improper relationship regardless of whether the misconduct occurs in a district other than the one in which the student attends school;
- Teachers will also have their teaching licenses/certification revoked even if they receive a deferred adjudication of guilt;
- Teachers will automatically lose their certification if they must register as a sex offender;
- New preventive measures by strengthening pre-employment screening for new teacher hires;
- Creates penalties for the hiring of a school employee who had a prior inappropriate relationship with a student; and
- Requires schools to create written policies dealing with electronic communications between staff and students.
Speaking about the passage of the bill out of the Senate earlier this year, Sen. Bettencourt said: “We’re talking about the health or safety of our kids. We cannot afford for these issues to be swept under the rug anymore … It is very clear [now] that scourge of teachers preying on students for sexual relationships will not be tolerated.”
Prosecutor Warren told the legislature in 2015 that she filed as many as 30 cases a year against educators allegedly involved in improper relationships with students. The penalty for conviction of such an offense is two to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
Most district attorneys in the state’s larger counties have prosecutors specially trained to deal with child sexual abuse cases. We suspect these district attorneys will now assign prosecutors like Warren to specialize in the prosecution of educators charged with having an improper relationship with students.
Feel Good Legislations Can Lead to False Allegations and Convictions
The problem inherent in any new law designed to combat a “plague” of certain misconduct is that prosecutors embrace the law as a license to overreach. All educators now find themselves in the “combat zone” in the war on the “plague.” An innocent misstep can easily become a criminal allegation in this kind of war zone. It is now more important than ever that educators facing false allegations of an improper relationship with a student to refrain from making any statements during an investigation until they have an experienced lawyer at their side, even if they have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide.
The John T. Floyd Law Firm stands ready, and committed, to make sure that educators are not falsely accused and railroaded into prison to restore the state’s tarnished reputation.