Lawmakers to act on inappropriate teacher-student relationships

The arrest of a former Austin educator is the latest in a growing trend that state lawmakers want to address. Earlier this week the first of several hearings was held on ways to stop teachers from having inappropriate contact with students. But state officials don’t want any new action to discourage positive relationships.

During the previous legislative session the Texas Education Agency was given special investigative powers it was done after some school superintendents filed report documents to the state that were completely blacked.

"The  subpoena power allows us, if we  ever get something like this to go back to the District and say no, I’m sorry you will provide us the information we need,” said TEA spokesperson Lauren Callahan.

The agency could get another hammer; an expansion of accountability for withholding information that goes beyond a superintendent.

"We went to the legislature and said, you know, it might be helpful to include principals in that reporting requirement as well,” said Callahan.

State lawmakers are also expected to explore ways to close several loopholes, such as: a teacher under investigation could resign - then get hired by another school district. State law also does not require teacher certificates to be surrendered if a defendant is granted deferred adjudication by a judge. But the agency is not calling for a total ban on teachers using social media.

"Not all communications between educators and students is inappropriate, but we've got to do a better job whether is from the parent level or educator level of when communication crosses that line,” said Callahan. 

Last year TEA launched 188 investigations following accusations of improper teacher-student relationships, but many other cases from previous years remain open and unresolved. One example involves former Cedar Park High School track coach Timothy Sheard. The felony case hasn't gone to a Grand Jury because of the loss of a key witness.  As a result Williamson County prosecutors say charges are being downgraded to misdemeanor public lewdness. In another case, after a two year investigation- charges were announced Monday against Tiffany Howard. She is a former coach at Bowie High School. That investigation also got sidetracked after the alleged victim initially didn't cooperate. Getting an alleged victim to testify, according to AISD Police Chief Eric Mendez, can be a difficult and long process.

"They feel this sense of bond, with their suspect, because they get groomed, and so they feel like there is a sense of trust they know this individual they feel like they are going to be taken care of, “said Chief Mendez.

To help address this problem Chief Mendez urged the legislature not to focus only on new punishment- but to provide better programs on how to identify and prevent the abuse.

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