Texas schools must now report inappropriate teacher-student contact

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the number of inappropriate teacher student relationships continue to rise year-to-year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill Thursday that will make it a criminal offense for school principals and superintendents if they don’t report and investigate inappropriate relationships.

“Texas is going to impose real and stiff consequences for any teacher who dares to have an inappropriate relationship with one of his or her students,” Gov. Abbott told reporters, lawmakers, and supporters in a signing ceremony in his office.

Senate Bill 7 requires school officials such as principals and superintendents to complete an investigation of an educator if there is evidence that the teacher might have engaged in misconduct, despite the teacher’s resignation from employment before the completion of the investigation. The school official must then file a report with the state Board for Educator Certification regarding the case, regardless of whether or not charges were ever filed. Those who don’t file a report could be fined between $500 and $10,000.

The bill is to ensure teachers who have troubled pasts don’t get hired at other school districts after being accused of inappropriate contact with students. A KXAN Investigation explained that a public school employee’s personnel file is public information for anyone who requests to see it. That file includes all sorts of information, including any disciplinary issues with that employee. School districts don’t ask for those records when they hire a teacher.

In the case of Christopher Cotten, a former McNeil High School track coach who is serving three years in prison for having an inappropriate relationship with a student, he was fired by the Austin Independent School District in 2000 for sending inappropriate emails to a female student. A KXAN Investigation found soon after that, he was hired by the Pflugerville Independent School District and then he went on to work for Round Rock Independent School District in 2004.

Both RRISD and PISD said they didn’t know AISD fired him for those allegations. Both districts also admit they never requested a copy of Cotten’s AISD personnel file. If they had, they would have found a letter written by Stephen F. Austin principal in it which states Cotten had been “engaging inappropriately with a female student” who was in ninth grade. Cotten had sent an email, described as “highly inappropriate for a teacher and a student.”

“Principals and administrators have not been doing their job. They’ve actually been accomplices to this problem by either allowing teachers to stay in that school or by passing them off to other schools. So we want to make sure those principals or administrations are also going to be accountable,” said Gov. Abbott in a one-on-one interview with KXAN’s Phil Prazan.

If a teacher is convicted on the charge of inappropriate teacher student relationship, the law will also strip them of their teaching license, effectively ensuring that they cannot be hired by another school district. The law takes effect Sept. 1, 2017.

“It should be enough because this is the toughest law cracking down on these teachers anywhere in the United States of America. These teachers have so much to lose. Not just facing jail time. Definitely losing the job, and losing their license, losing their pension,” said Gov. Abbott.

In 2016, the state opened 222 investigations into educators having romantic and sexual relationships with their students.

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