Doug Phillips and his team are the busiest they’ve ever been. He’s the director of investigations at the Texas Education Agency. When there’s a report of an inappropriate student-teacher relationship in a Texas public school, Phillips is the guy who looks into it.
Reports of sexual relationships between teachers and students have skyrocketed in recent years. It’s left parents, school administrators and politicians searching for solutions.
In the last fiscal year, Phillips’ department handled 222 reports of student-teacher relationships – the most ever. In these situations, Phillips has a strict set of guidelines he adheres to, but the districts he investigates do not.
“Each district kind of has their own policy on how they handle those things,” Phillips says. “They conduct their investigation however they see fit. There is no standard ‘This is how you do things,’ up until the point where you have to report.”
Curbing these relationships is a top priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for the next legislative session. But experts who study the issue say something Texas doesn’t have now could be a powerful tool in stemming the tide: a set of statewide standards on how to handle such situations.
Texas law says that student-teacher relationships must be reported to the State Board of Educator Certification, law enforcement and child protective services. But there isn’t a lot of structure beyond that, and oftentimes districts make mistakes – both legally, and for the student’s well-being.
“There’s a host of problems. We see instances where the district just puts a victim in a bad position,” Phillips says. “We’ve seen places where they’ve had the victim and the educator in the same room where they ask them about – ‘You know we hear there’s a rumor going on, what do you two have to say about this?’ We see a variety of quality of investigations when we get involved.”
Experts agree that improper relationships need to be reported to authorities as soon as possible to allow them to conduct an investigation before the school district. The student’s identity should be kept confidential, and the student should see an appropriate counselor or therapist.
But Terri Miller says none of that happens in most cases.
She’s the president of SESAME, a group that advocates for children abused by educators. Part of its agenda is to push for uniform policies for school districts to follow in these situations. And many districts want that too. The Texas Association of School Boards is currently working on a voluntary set of guidelines that districts can adopt.
Christina Green, director of public affairs for the Child Advocacy Centers of Texas, offered an example of what can happen when those guidelines don’t exist. They coordinate with local law enforcement and school districts in child abuse cases. Green remembers one case involving several boys who had all been in an inappropriate relationship with the same teacher:
“They were called into the principal’s office and they were questioned individually, they were told that the others had confessed, they were made to sign pieces of paper that had kind of a statement from them that certain things had occurred,” Green says.
“And by the time law enforcement and Child Protective Services were involved, all but one of those boys recanted. It created a disaster of a case for the district attorney because you’ve got inconsistent evidence, inconsistent statements, that wouldn’t have happened if law enforcement would have been involved further upstream.”
Green says administrators in some districts might think a direct approach like that is the right thing to do – or they’re trying to handle the issue “in-house” before calling the authorities. Phillips said this used to be a lot more common, especially in small communities where everybody knows everybody.
That’s something Rep. Tony Dale (R-Cedar Park) hopes to cut out altogether through a bill he filed for the next legislative session.
“Since we filed this legislation we’ve received an incredible number of phone calls from all over the state from parents who have had their children caught up in these situations,” Dale says. “Some have been reported to police, some have not. It’s just unbelievable to me that this is occurring.”
Dale’s bill will strengthen penalties for superintendents who don’t report relationships to the state, and it will force principals to report too. It will also close a loophole that allows someone who engaged in a sexual relationship with a minor to find a job in another district, and adds training requirements for educators. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) has filed a similar bill in the Senate.