Texas legislators on Thursday opened the first discussion on bills that would crackdown on improper relationships between students and teachers after multiple reports showing a rise in investigations across the state.

“This is not just simply an urban versus rural issue,” said Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, author of Senate Bill 7, one of several bills that seeks to address the growing problem. “This is an ‘everybody has a problem’ issue.”

Bettencourt’s bill would attempt to stop “passing the trash,” as he put it, by revoking the certificate of any administrator found to have helped a person who was engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor find another job in education. It also would impose criminal penalties on superintendents or principals if they “knowingly fail” to report improper relationships, would give the Texas Education Agency subpoena authority to compel witnesses to testify, and would automatically revoke a teacher’s license if the educator commits any offense that requires him or her to register as sex offenders.

State records show the number of educators accused of having sex or inappropriate relationships with students has increased by 42 percent over the last five years. Since the 2011-12 fiscal year, the Texas Education Agency has opened 908 cases of alleged improper relationships between an educator and a student or minor. The TEA opened 222 investigations in the 2015-16 fiscal year, up from 156 investigations in 2011-12, according to TEA spokeswoman Lauren Callahan.

Through the end of January, the TEA has opened 97 new cases in the fiscal year that began last Sept. 1.

In the San Antonio area, 63 educators lost their teaching certificate after investigations were opened for alleged involvement with a student over a six-year period; only 24 were charged with a crime.

The bill says that a superintendent or director must file a report to the State Board for Educator Certification within seven days of learning or after they should have known about the incident, even if the educator resigns during an investigation. If the report is made late, superintendents or principals would face a Class A misdemeanor. If the principal or superintendent is found to have intentionally conceal an educator’s criminal record or alleged incident of misconduct, it would be a state jail felony.

The wording of Bettencourt’s bill, however, sparked discussion among lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing since SB 7 says the bill would punish superintendents who “knew or should have known” about a teacher’s criminal record.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said terms are not specific enough and he wants to have a clearer definition of what principals and superintendents need to report to the TEA. West was concerned that administrators who accidentally filed late could face harsh penalties. The definition of “should have known” also raised concerns. The bill was left pending in committee; more discussion will be scheduled.

“Teachers who assault children should lose their license, and they should go to jail,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in his State of the State address. “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.”

Another bill tackling the problem, SB 653, authored by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, would create a registry of people who are barred from employment in an educational facility. The bill also would prohibit any school employee, not just teachers and administrators, from working in a school if they are found to have been in an improper relationship with a student.

“We have to cast a wider net,” Taylor said. “This is a big problem; this is a broken system.”

Kate Kuhlmann, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said many would-be teachers have little instruction in how to maintain proper student relationships during training. Taylor’s bill would call for more training in that area.

“Knowing that this makes up a very small portion of all teachers, one is certainly too many,” Kuhlmann said.

Austin Bureau Staff Writer Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report.

This article was published in the San Antonio Express-News Feb. 23, 2017. 

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