Failing to report teacher-student relationships could become a crime

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the number of cases of inappropriate teacher-student relationships continues to rise, a local lawmaker wants to make sure teachers who are caught won’t be allowed to teach in the future.

“It’s time we fully address this issue and make sure that educators who have inappropriate relationships with students are not allowed to teach again,” said State Representative Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park.

Rep. Dale is hoping to put an end to cases like that of former Round Rock teacher Christopher Cotten, who is currently serving three years in prison after pleading guilty to improper relationship between educator and student and indecency with a child.

In 2015, KXAN Investigator Brian Collister explained how Cotten was hired by Round Rock Independent School District even though he had disciplinary issues with other school districts. KXAN discovered Austin Independent School District fired him in 2000 for sending inappropriate emails to a female student. Soon after, Pflugerville Independent School District hired him and then he went on to work at Round Rock ISD in 2004. Both PISD and RRISD said they didn’t know AISD had fired Cotten.

“School districts may conduct necessary research prior to hiring and still not find the critical information regarding the teacher’s last job,” Dale told the House Committee on Public Education Monday. “This practice puts both school districts and students at risk.”

Dale’s House Bill 218 would prevent school districts from keeping disciplinary investigations outside of personnel files. It also makes it a criminal offense for school principals and/or directors if they don’t report inappropriate teacher-student relationships to the state. And those teachers who’ve resigned while under investigation for having an inappropriate relationship would have to tell another district in a written affidavit when applying–which is drawing fire from those who represent teachers.

“There will be some number of false accusations,” said Mark Wiggins, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “We’re just worried that all things equal a district will, is going to opt for the candidate that doesn’t even have the accusation there regardless of whether it’s false or not.”

Wiggins later clarified that his remarks before the committee about the affidavit were not regarding teachers who resigned while under investigation. He says ATPE believes those cases should be scrutinized. The group’s concern is dealing with those teachers who may have had an accusation at some point, and the concluded investigation determined the accusation was categorically false and cleared them of any suspicion. Wiggins says ATPE does not want that would be an impediment if they wanted to move to another district years down the road.

Notwithstanding that specific concern, we don’t oppose HB 218 and our testimony today was neutral. We’ve also testified in support of legislation tackling this issue in the Senate. We’re working with several legislators to get something passed on this, and I’m happy to loop you in as things move forward.

There is a similar bill in the Senate, but it does not require an applicant to disclose whether they were under investigation at a former district. Now, it’s up to the House and Senate to decide which bill they want to move forward, or do nothing.

During the fiscal year 2015 to 2016, the Texas Education Agency reported 222 cases of alleged inappropriate relationships. That’s the highest number the agency has seen since tracking started in 2009.

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