Texas Senate Addresses Rise in Inappropriate Student-Teacher Relationships

A high school band director having sex with a student, a track coach sexting “lewd photos” to a 16-year-old girl, a geography teacher who sexually assaulted the student who was baby-sitting his kids while his wife was asleep upstairs — that's just a sample of the 188 cases of inappropriate teacher-student relationships investigated by the Texas Education Agency in 2015.

And according to data from the agency, that's the largest number of cases it has seen in years. Since 2009, there's been a 53 percent increase in student-teacher relationship investigations, prompting the Texas Senate Committee on Education to hold a hearing addressing the issue Monday.  “If some teachers believe in some twisted logic that they can go down this path of abusing children from one district to the next," said Sen. Paul Bettencourt, "this must be stamped out. Period.”

One of the primary concerns among officials was that these cases of inappropriate relationships go on too long before they're investigated. Given that schools have their own policies for assessing complaints before any official investigations, Harris County prosecutor Katie Warren said law enforcement isn't involved soon enough, potentially leaving principals to play the role of the investigator, which she called biased, and leaving teachers with time to destroy evidence on their phones. Warren, who said Harris County prosecutes ten to 30 cases of inappropriate teacher-student relationships per year, said that, in this day and age, evidence on social media, phones and apps has been a gold mine — and likely has a lot to do with the spike in investigations.

“It's a little bit of a reflection of the modern-day age of how teens are communicating with each other,” she said. “So teachers, in an effort to connect with their students, want to speak the same language as them. Is it enabling these teachers to commit crimes they wouldn't have been able to do ten or 15 years ago? Probably.”

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Whether the incidents get reported at all, however, was a different concern altogether. While teachers are required by law to report child abuse, what about finding out that the phys ed teacher texted one of his students to come over at night? Nope. Officials on the panel said that the lack of clear legal requirements, combined with teachers afraid to rat out their colleagues, means that oftentimes inappropriate teachers aren't reprimanded — or aren't reprimanded until they've sexually assaulted a student on their couch while their wife is asleep.

David Thompson, an educational leadership professor at the University of Texas, recommended developing training to help school employees identify creepy teacher behavior early on. He had a term for that creepy teacher behavior he called “grooming” — a multi-step process, he said, in which a teacher identifies a specific child, secures that child's sworn secrecy so as to avoid getting busted, and finds ways to get the child alone to begin wooing him or her — what Thompson called “preparing” the child for abuse. Thompson said that fellow teachers need to be doing a better job of identifying signs of that grooming, which he said could include teachers singling kids out for preferential treatment, displaying overtly affectionate attention toward that student, having inside jokes with the student that no one else gets, or being that student's confidant.

But some members of the committee, such as Sen. Lois Kolkhorst and Sen. Larry Taylor, thought that, in some cases, this may be awfully close to just a teacher being a good influence in a kid's life. As they prepared to consider stricter policies, they also feared overlooking the possibility that they could put well-intentioned educators at risk of false accusations (though Warren assured the committee that that rarely happens). “In effort to protect our children, we don't want to deny them the opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with their teachers who can make a difference in their life,” Taylor said.

Doug Philips, director of educator investigations with TEA, also noted that, at first look, his agency doesn't automatically assume that the teacher's close relationship with a student is creepy. “Sometimes we can't tell,” Philips said. “We're like, are you dumb? Are you doing things that no rational person should be doing in your position, or are you really a bad person?” Of the 188 cases this year, the agency has cleared 35 teachers of wrongdoing.

Kolkhorst said that if they're going to enact any stricter reporting policies to incentivize more teacher vigilance, it's going to call for making judgment calls that don't subject teachers and students alike to unreasonable standards. ““It's not inappropriate for a coach to send a text that says: “Great hustle today. Thanks for being a leader.” A teacher or coach texting a student is not inappropriate. But if they're sending pictures or saying, “Hey, what are you doing tonight?” — that's not cool.” 

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