September 24, 2015
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A middle school child reports to her principal a terrifying incident of inappropriate sexual misconduct by one of her school teachers after her math class. The parents are notified, the child is consoled, and an investigation by school officials begins. But what happens if the student is embarrassed, the parents don't know how to address the situation with their child or their community, the school administration wants to deal with the issue internally, and no criminal charges are filed.
Unfortunately, the following scenario often occurs. The teacher agrees not to sue the district and the district agrees to pay the teacher’s salary through the end of the school year and remove any documents related to the incident and put them in a separate, sealed and confidential file that is not disclosed during information requests. A neutral reference letter will be given to the teacher. The teacher then moves on and when asked on a job application whether he or she had ever been accused of sexual misconduct or been the subject of an investigation, the teacher answers no. The teacher gets hired and now works for another school district in Texas.
All too often, districts engage in this practice — laid out "settlement agreements," when they do not want the public to know or when they fear the teacher may file a lawsuit or discrimination claim that could lead to significant legal fees and litigation.
This practice is increasing at the same time that teacher-student sexual misconduct cases are increasing nationwide. In Texas public schools, it has significantly increased by 41% between September 1, 2014 to February 28, 2015. During this time, TEA reported 74 new teacher-student inappropriate sexual cases. By concealing their full employment histories, teachers with sketchy backgrounds continue to get jobs and become gypsy teachers at different schools.
The main safeguard is the Texas Education Agency, which by law must investigate and discipline teachers from reports of misconduct. But the agency’s investigators have found it increasingly difficult to do their jobs because school districts are often not reporting incidents.
Not reporting incidents hinders TEA's ability to provide regulation and take enforcement action to protect the public. Why are they not reporting? There were loopholes in the statutory requirements for reporting teacher misconduct that allowed certain instances of sexual misconduct to go unreported. Because of misinterpretations of the law, some districts believed they were not required to report all teacher or employee misconduct, so they often entered into a settlement arrangement with the teacher unless there were criminal charges involved.
These practices by school districts do nothing but harm our children — innocent children who get no warning of prior teacher misconduct. When districts allow teachers with allegations against them to move on to other classrooms, more children will be harmed.
But as of September 1st, this changed. Because of my grave concerns for the safety of our children, this legislative session I authored and passed legislation that now requires school districts statewide to report all instances of sexual misconduct. School superintendents and charter school directors must report to TEA any public school teacher or employee who was involved in a romantic relationship or solicited or engaged in sexual contact with a student or minor, and any termination or resignation of a teacher because of sexual misconduct. The district must report within 7 days of knowing, and they must complete an investigation if they have any evidence of the sexual misconduct.
This significant legislation tightens the school district's reporting requirements of educator misconduct and increases TEA's ability to pursue these cases. The safety and well-being of our children is of the utmost importance.