Teachers with troubled past allowed to teach via separation agreements

While an educator's personnel file is encompassing, separation agreements with school districts can keep some information hidden.

The new school year has started and parents expect their children to be in a safe learning environment. But a KXAN Investigation finds whether it’s poor classroom performance or inappropriate contact with students, your child’s teacher or coach could be hiding a troubled past, sometimes with the help of former employers.

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. But we've learned school districts don’t ask for those records when they hire a teacher.

Christopher Cotten
Christopher Cotten, former McNeil HS coeach

That was the case when the now former McNeil High School track coach Christopher Cotten was hired by Round Rock ISD in 2004. Cotten's career in education is likely now over as he faces criminal charges for improper relationship between an educator and student and indecency with a child by sexual contact.

Earlier this year, a 16-year-old girl, who is a student at McNeil High School, told police Cotten kissed her when he drove her home from practice in March, according to an arrest affidavit. After the physical encounter, the alleged victim said Cotten sent her several texts with inappropriate photos via a third party texting application.

“We're very hurt,” said the grandfather of Cotten’s alleged victim. “I'm just as angry at them as the defendant. I'm angry at the school district,” he told KXAN.

The grandfather says the district should have done its homework before hiring Cotten.

This is because Round Rock ISD wasn't the first district to have disciplinary issues with Cotten. 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.

“I hope the district wakes up because this is wrong and something needs to be done about it,” said the grandfather.

Round Rock ISD and Pflugerville ISD say they didn't know AISD had fired Cotten. 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 9th grade. Cotten had sent an email, described as "highly inappropriate for a teacher and a student."

KXAN obtained the letter by simply filing a public information request for Cotten's entire personnel file.

We caught up with Christopher Cotton, 41, at an August court appearance for his pending criminal cases. He kept walking and did not respond to any of our questions.

Personnel Records

We spoke to Round Rock ISD’s director of human resources, Mark Gesch about why they never requested Cotten’s personnel records from AISD.

“I don't know that that letter would've been in his [AISD] personnel file,” said Gesch, acknowledging the district did not request Cotton’s AISD file.

However, a public information request submitted by KXAN yielded a copy of the letter among his personnel records.

The head of human resources at Pflugerville ISD says it's not standard procedure among school districts to request personnel files.

“The personnel file is voluminous and often does not have information of concern in it,” said Dr. Rhonda McWilliams of PISD.

KXAN Investigator Brian Collister showed McWilliams the letter in the AISD records and asked, “Why wouldn't you want to see something like this?”

“I can't speak to the procedures that were going on in hiring back then,” McWilliams replied. “All I can do is tell you I've looked back and saw that PISD followed appropriate procedures. Three references were contacted in Austin ISD and three good references were given for Mr. Cotten.”

“Would you have hired someone with this letter if you'd seen it?” asked Collister. “No, absolutely not,” McWilliams responded adamantly.

Gesch and McWilliams both say their districts did what the law requires: a criminal background check and verification of a valid teaching certificate. Both also say checking past personnel files from every district a teacher has worked would slow down the hiring process.

“That's a lousy excuse,” said the grandfather of Cotten’s alleged victim. “It's a denial of their responsibility. And it's just flat out wrong.”

Districts must report employees to the state only in the most serious cases such as: abuse, sexual contact with a student, drugs or stealing money from the district. Anything less serious the district can handle on its own and simply document it in the employee's personnel file.

Separation Agreements

While personnel files include disciplinary records, teachers sometimes reach separation agreements with school districts that could prevent future employers from finding out about their past. In those agreements, the teacher agrees to resign and the school district agrees to put records detailing their problems into a separate, confidential file future employers might never see.

It’s a practice Gesh says helps save districts time and money. The district says the agreements are sometimes necessary to get teachers out of the classroom as quickly as possible or spare the district an expensive legal battle.

“It is more efficient and more effective on the part of the district in terms of moving things forward,” Gesh said.

Round Rock ISD is the second largest district in the Austin-area, behind Austin ISD. RRISD has entered into 27 of these agreements since 2010. The agreements usually stipulate the district will only provide potential future employers what's called a "neutral reference," only confirming the teacher once worked there.

“When we give a neutral reference that's exactly what it is, a neutral reference,” said Gesch.

“But you're also taking the records out of the personnel file, so you're making it very hard for that other district to find out the problems with that educator. Why would you do that?” asked Collister.

“Because it's part of the agreement,” Gesh responded.

According to documents obtained under the Texas Freedom of Information Act, KXAN discovered most every school district across Central Texas has used these agreements, including: San Marcos ISD, which fired a principal for misconduct; Pflugerville ISD, which fired a teacher for not making the grade in the classroom; and Round Rock ISD, which fired a teacher who hit a student.

All of the cases kept quiet and many of the teachers could now be working in new districts.

School districts say the process isn’t meant to hide anything. “The intent is not to make it more difficult,” Gesh claimed. “The intent is to make sure the best teachers we have in the district are available for our kids and the teachers that don't need to be there in our particular settings, or our particular classrooms, that we get them out as quickly as we can.”

These separation agreements raise concern for State Representative Tony Dale, whose district covers parts of Austin, Pflugerville and Round Rock school districts.

“I think being able to set things aside, especially when a school district knows when something actually occurred that was detrimental to the learning environment, or the students, or financial health of the school district, it's just really hard to believe there's separate files that can be put out there,” Rep. Dale said.

During the 2015 legislative session, Dale helped strengthen types of misconduct districts are required to report to the state and police, but he was unaware of districts using these agreements.

“I don't know the history of how these files came about, or the way these contracts are written that allows these things to be put off to the side but it's certainly something that I've got an interest in. We're going to take a look at it,” Dale promised.

Dale has requested an interim study be conducted prior to the next legislative session to examine the issue. ((attach doc))

Concerned parents like the grandfather of Cotten’s alleged victim hope school districts will be made more transparent when it comes to teachers with past problems.

“We fully want to support our teachers, but the administration has to thoroughly check whoever they're hiring because these incidents, they affect a child for a lifetime.”

Checking a Teacher's History

If you’d like to check the history of your child’s teacher simply submit a written public information request, via mail, email, or fax to the public information office of your child’s district for the teacher’s personnel file.

You can also ask for their service record showing all positions they’ve held at all school districts in their career. From there, you can request the personnel files and separation agreements (if they have any) from districts in which the teacher has worked in the past.

If you want to check for the certifications held by your teacher you can simply search the State Board of Education’s website.

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