AUSTIN, Texas (TRIBUNE) -- School principals and superintendents who fail to report teachers involved in inappropriate relationships with students could face criminal charges under a bill passed unanimously Wednesday in the Texas Senate.
Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said he introduced Senate Bill 7 in response to an uptick of cases in the past eight years where Texas elementary, middle and high school teachers were found in romantic and sexual relationships with their students. In fiscal year 2016, the Texas Education Agency opened 222 investigations that involved inappropriate relationships.
Many of these teachers, Bettencourt said, remain in the educational system even after their offenses have been discovered because school superintendents or principals do not report their transgressions to the TEA — a practice advocates have dubbed “passing the trash.”
Under the bill, failure by administrators to report teacher misconduct could lead to a Class A misdemeanor — and intentionally not reporting misconduct could result in a state jail felony.
“This is an attack on our school kids,” Bettencourt said while presenting the bill to Senate. “Schools, teachers and the students especially are radically changed once a relationship like this occurs, and we have to take every action to prevent educators from getting into these situations.”
SB 7 is now headed to the Texas House, which has similar legislation of its own. House Bill 218, filed by Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, and co-authored by three other members, also takes aim at inappropriate student-teacher relationships. The House bill expands criminal liability to include teachers who target students in schools or districts different from their own, and it also criminalizes the failure to report inappropriate relationships to the State Board for Educator Certification, among other measures.
Under the Senate bill, a teacher would be charged with improper relationship with a student whether or not the student is in their district and would automatically lose their license if they have to register as a sex offender. It also introduces teacher training to properly handle personal boundaries and relationships with students.
In order to better track these cases in the state, the bill would also expand the TEA’s investigative authority from intra-district to inter-district relationships.
Before passing the bill, lawmakers adopted an amendment by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, that would revoke state pensions from teachers with felony convictions. In response to concerns from Sens. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Royce West, D-Dallas, who worried the amendment would affect wrongly accused teachers, Taylor presented a second version of his amendment that tightened the description of teachers who would lose their pensions. Taylor's amendment removes pensions to those who are found guilty of continuous sexual abuse of a child, an improper relationship between educator and student, or sexual assault. It would also return pensions and other payments withheld to educators whose convictions are overturned or who are found innocent.