Inappropriate teacher-student relationships increasing, state works on solutions

(CNN)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Senate Education Committee on Monday began the process of reviewing and implementing new laws to combat the rise in inappropriate educator-student relationships. Over the past three school years, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) says the number of investigations involving inappropriate relationships increased from 141 in 2009-10 to 179 in 2013-14 and 188 in 2014-15.

Senate Education Chair Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, is tackling the problem after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick included the issue as one of the topics lawmakers are required to study in between the 2015 and 2017 legislative session.

Senator Taylor says some of his goals are to establish clear lines of what is appropriate and make sure every teacher knows them. He adds the punishment should be harsh for those who knowingly cross those lines.

“Unfortunately there are just people out there looking for victims. That’s a criminal. Other then weeding those out throughout the process, you have to deal with them in a different way than the others,” said Sen. Taylor.

The entire charge from Lt. Governor Dan Patrick is:

Study the recent rise of inappropriate teacher-student relationships, the impact of social media interaction between teachers and students, and examine the current efforts by the Texas Education Agency, schools, law enforcement, and the courts to investigate and prosecute any educator engaged in inappropriate relationships. Determine what recommendations, if any, are needed to improve student safety, including increasing agency staff, adjusting penalties, and strengthening efforts to sanction educators’ certificates for misconduct. Study and address the issue of prevention through training and education of school employees,

This issue was one of two tackled by the Senated Education Committee. The other was state property/money for charter schools. The entire hearing lasted about six hours. Senator Taylor says the interim allows lawmakers to look at issues more thoroughly and with more focus.

“Really it is a matter of finding balance. You don’t want to have false allegations thatcould ruin people’s lives. At the same time you don’t want this to happen and being carried over to another district,” said Senator Taylor.

Finding balance was one of his priorities, recognizing this issue cuts many directions and impacts families, teachers,coaches law enforcement, and school officials.

“If a school starts an investigation on this.They may actually be spoiling an investigation by tipping off a potential perpetrator,” said Sen. Taylor.

Senator Paul Bettencourt, R – Houston, authored legislation last session to give TEA investigators subpoena power against school districts. This year, he wants to “give more teeth” to investigators.

Lawmakers last session paid for eight TEA officials who investigate in-appropriate relationships with students.

There are more than five million students in Texas public schools.  According to new numbers from the Texas Education Agency, 910 total investigations were opened last school year. Fifty-five percent were opened after a report of sexual misconduct, violence, sexual harassment or an inappropriate relationship with a student.

Kate Kuhlman from the Association of Texas Professional Educators testified during the committee hearing.

“No one wants this action to take place in the first place,” said Kuhlman. She would like lawmakers to study what causes this behavior and come out with recommendations to stop it; be it more training, more faculty or parent involvement, or more awareness.

Senators and experts called to testify expressed their desire to keep tools available to build healthy relationships between teachers, students, and coaches. They do not want any possible laws to scare adults from encouraging students or improving close relationships that will lead to a positive future in the student.

The Texas Educators’ Code of Ethics provides rules for standard practices and ethical conduct toward students, professional colleagues, school officials, parents and members of the community. The Code specifically calls on teachers to refrain from inappropriately communicating with students through the use of social media. According to the Texas Penal Code, a teacher can only be charged with improper relationship between educator and student if there is sexual contact with a person enrolled at the same district–if the student attends a different school district the teacher cannot face that particular charge.

Options on the table for lawmakers:

  • Paying for more TEA investigators dedicated to this issue.
  • Making more actions illegal in the penal code: kissing, dating, etc.
  • Having parents cc’d on emails, text messages, or Facebook messages.
  • Clarifying the exact moment a relationship becomes inproper.
  • Banning contact via Snapchat and other apps that don’t have public records.

Central Texas cases

In the past few years, there have been numerous cases of inappropriate educator-student relationships in Central Texas.

A former Comal Independent School District band director is accused of having a sexual relationship with one of his students in 2007. New Braunfels police arrested 56-year-old David Gunn last month and charged him with sexual assault of a child. Police say Gunn had a relationship with one of his students, who was 16 at the time, when he worked as a band director at Canyon Middle School in New Braunfels.

McNeil High School cross country coach Christopher Cotten, 41, is facing charges of indecency with a child by sexual contact, improper relationship between educator and a student and distribution of harmful material to a minor. The Round Rock Independent School District was notified of the complaint in April and on the same day, Cotten was place on administrative leave. According to the personnel documents, Cotten resigned six days later.

Earlier this year, a former Austin teacher was convicted and will spend 25 years in jail for sexually abusing several of his students. Alfredo Andrade-Gaytan, 34, agreed to a plea deal and was sentenced by a judge on Aug. 4. Police say he abused a 6-year-old student at summer school and once that surfaced, four other allegations came to light.

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