Student Advocates Call For More Prevention Policies To Stop Educator Sex Crimes
By Eva Lorraine Molina
For Reporting Texas
Parents and school districts are working to protect students from outside threats while at school, but students sometimes are in danger from the teachers and administrators they see every day.
More than ever, educators nationwide are being accused and convicted of sex crimes against students, with Texas having more cases than any other state. State education officials suggest that students and educators may be reporting sexual misconduct more often but also say that social media has created new opportunities for teachers to conduct inappropriate relationships with students.
The state and school districts have been toughening their policies on educator sexual misconduct, training employees to recognize problems and requiring public disclosure of all cases. But advocates for children say more needs to be done, including banning private electronic communication between teachers and students and improving hiring and training practices.
“There is a longtime problem in Texas regarding this issue,” said Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation, a national group that fights child abuse.
A Texas-size problem
Terry Abbott, a longtime communications adviser for Texas school districts, tallies media reports about improper teacher-student relationships, which include everything from suggestive text messages to physical relationships. His latest count shows that between January and September this year, there were 354 arrests in inappropriate sexual relationships between educators and students in the U.S. Texas had the most, with 54 cases. California had 32 cases, followed by Florida with 19 and New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which each had 18 cases.
“It’s a national disgrace,” Abbott said. He keeps track of these reports because he thinks the issue does not get sufficient attention.
The Texas Education Agency is stepping up its enforcement. In the past six years, the agency has doubled the number of investigations into teachers who had inappropriate relationships with students. During the 2007-2008 school year, TEA opened 86 cases. There were 163 cases in 2012-2013.
The agency cannot identify how many ended in a license suspension or revocation.
Child abuse experts say social media has blurred the boundaries of teacher-student relationships and complicated their fight to stop educators from initiating improper contact. Abbott said social media—mostly Facebook—facilitated 38 percent of the relationships he tallied.
“These teachers feel emboldened, hiding behind a screen, to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do,” Abbott said.
First-time offenders can get probation
In a 2003 effort to address the issue, the Texas Legislature enacted tough penalties for educators who engage in sexual relationships with students, even if the students are of legal age. The offense is a second-degree felony that can carry a 2- to 20-year prison sentence, a $10,000 fine and a listing on the sex offender registry. However, unless there are additional or multiple charges, first-time offenders can receive probation.
“For this felony, it’s an automatic revocation of that teacher’s certification,” said DeEtta Culbertson, TEA spokeswoman.
In 2010, the TEA adopted a social media policy that bans “inappropriate” communication between educators and students. The agency defined inappropriate as suggestive and sexual discussions, a high volume of electronic messages and late-night communication on social media.
Some districts have created policies that further limit social media contacts, while others ban them altogether.
Abbott and SESAME say schools should prohibit social media contacts or any other means of unmonitored private communication between teachers and students.
“Communication can be done between students and faculty on the school website regarding homework, sports and the arts,” Miller with SESAME said. “There is absolutely no reason for any personal exchange of information to be happening between educators and students.”
Passing the trash
Student advocates also want school districts to adopt tougher screening processes for potential employees to stop districts from “passing the trash”— shorthand used to describe instances when an educator under investigation for inappropriate behavior with a student is allowed to resign without formal charges and move to a different school.
“This is a system set up to protect the system and to protect the perpetrators rather than protect the children,” Miller said.
In Texas, districts screen their own candidates and hire whom they want. Background checks might not turn up any red flags if there are no criminal charges.
“Hiring is a local policy,” Culbertson said. “If someone is being investigated for another charge that is not a severe felony charge, then it’s up to the local district.”
In September, Westlake High School in suburban Austin hired an assistant principal from Chicago who was under investigation for sending inappropriate text messages to a student there. In one exchange with a student, police records show the educator wrote, “Pizza delivery boy? Hot”
Parents expressed concern after the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE TV reported the Chicago investigation, and the Eanes Independent School District revoked its job offer. Claudia McWhorter, Eanes spokeswoman, said the district is considering revising its administrative hiring process to include parents and students on selection committees.
More training, more prevention
Child abuse experts say the key to prevention lies in training educators to spot signs of abuse in children and recognize predatory behavior in adults.
A Texas law that went into effect on Sept. 1 requires all educators to undergo annual training to learn how to recognize and report all forms of child abuse and neglect.
The Children’s Assessment Center, a Houston-based child advocacy center, has partnered with Darkness to Light, a Charleston, S.C. -based nonprofit, to provide the two-hour training. The training does not directly address predatory behaviors in educators. However, Tammy Hetmaniak, with the assessment center, said she hopes it will lead to more awareness and better reporting of abuse cases.
Educators in the Texas City ISD were the first to undergo the training in August. The assessment center plans to bring the program to Houston, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio.
By next August, CAC hopes to have trained 5 percent of teachers in the Houston area, where many of the reported cases of improper relationships have occurred this year.