Lawmakers in Austin are considering wide-reaching new punishments over improper student-teacher relationships, including taking pensions away from teachers convicted of having sexual contact with students.
Lawmakers say they want to make it easier to find people working in public, private, and charter schools who’ve had inappropriate contact with students and to keep those adults from working with young people again.
Convening the Texas Senate Committee on Education on Thursday, lawmakers reflected on the numbers that brought them here.
“The number of educators being investigated for inappropriate relationships has skyrocketed in the last fiscal year,” said State Senator Paul Bettencourt.
The TEA says that since September 1, it's opened 97 investigations involving inappropriate relationships between an educator and student. It’s on pace to pass the last full fiscal year's 222 investigations, up significantly from 156 five years ago.
State Senator Van Taylor of Plano says one solution may be financial.
“This is a big problem. It is a broken system, and this is why it requires a substantial piece of legislation to fix all the different problems,” he said. “We need to revoke the pension of teachers who commit these kinds of terrible acts against children that they're getting pensions in jail.”
Taylor is also proposing expanding reporting requirements and establishing a registry of educators who've had inappropriate contact with students to make sure they're not hired anywhere else.
The proposed legislation would make it a crime for a superintendent or principal to not report an employee who they have reason to believe had inappropriate contact with a student.
Clinical psychologist Dr. John Jeffrey agrees that the concerns have reached epidemic proportions, driven, in part, by interactions that happen online.
“All those get blurred on social media, the different levels of intimacy for a relationship,” he said. “And it all becomes so casual, and there's deep level of confiding in someone you've just met.”
Dr. Jeffrey says kids especially have trouble with those blurred lines and should be able to rely on adults to enforce the boundaries.
“Most school teachers are great teachers, and they're abiding by this,” he said. “But the great increase of this it's just tragic and it's heartbreaking.”
Some districts in North Texas have already taken steps to address social media boundaries with policies and additional training.
The legislation lawmakers are talking about that now and would require those steps in all schools state-wide.