Lawmakers to strengthen penalties for student-teacher relationships

Christopher Cotten seen at the pre-trail hearing (KXAN Photo)
Christopher Cotten seen at the pre-trail hearing (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Education Agency says they expect to see a continued rise in inappropriate teacher/student relationships. Last year KXAN uncovered problems keeping you from knowing which teachers had troubled pasts and Texas lawmakers want to make a change.

“Separation agreements” are a contract between a teacher and a district. A teacher agrees to resign from a school district. In return the school district agrees not to disclose why they were fired. Some time it’s just over a heated argument. Other times, they’re allegations of “unwelcome sexual advances.”

McNeil High School in Round Rock found out only after it was too late. Former track coach Christopher Cotten admitted he had an inappropriate relationship with a student. He received a three year jail sentence. He was employed in Austin and Pflugerville before he was charged. His personnel file showed he had allegations in his past, but that information didn’t get to the other districts.

“And that puts children in subsequent school districts at risk,” said Dr. David Thompson from the University of Texas San Antonio. He testified before the House Public Education Committee Wednesday.

He says several states have upped the penalties for “passing the trash,” or knowingly not passing on information about a teacher when asked for it by another district.

Missouri makes a school district liable for lawsuits from a victim’s family and another school district if the former district didn’t raise a red flag.

“And I also suggested that a criminal penalty for superintendents who knowingly fail [to inform] is something the legislature should consider,” said Dr. Thompson.

Lawmakers told the Texas Education Agency to talk to their lawyers, to bring them ideas, so they can strengthen the laws when they officially gavel into session next January.

“Their number one priority should be the children, the students,” Rep. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, said.

Obviously, if the student is not of legal age, that would be against the law. Lawmakers in Wednesday’s hearing were surprised by our current laws on the books. It is legally possible for a teacher to date a student.

It is only against the law when a teacher and student engage in sexual activity and the student is someone within the teacher’s school district. If this happens in another school district, a private school, or a home school, it is legal. While it could be against district policy, it is currently legal for a teacher to date, kiss and have questionable communications with a student. Lawmakers will try to change that in January, as soon as they are able to.

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