Senate Education Committee hears update on improper relationships between school employees and students

In the last legislative session, lawmakers passed SB 7, which greatly expanded the reporting requirements when districts find evidence of improper relationships between educators and students, and it added civil fines and possible criminal penalties for principals and superintendents who do not meet these reporting requirements. Additionally, educators who are convicted in criminal court of an improper relationships can now lose their Teacher Retirement System of Texas pensions–in addition to being sentenced to jail time for a second-degree felony. (You can find a more detailed analysis of the law here.)

On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee heard an update on possible effects of the law that showed a 42 percent increase in the number of improper relationships reported over the past year–a total of 429 cases being investigated by the Texas Education Agency. Testimony given at the hearing offered three possible causes for the spike, the largest in a decade of increasing incidents reported: 1) The continued increase in communication in texts and social media on mobile phones; 2) More awareness and likelihood of students coming forward due to the #MeToo movement, and; 3) The enhanced reporting requirements of SB 7.

Another requirement of SB 7 is for school districts to establish policies on electronic communication defining permissible and impermissible contact with students. The hearing Tuesday was a good reminder to know your district’s policy on this issue. For instance, the law allows educators to refuse to give out their personal telephone numbers or email addresses to students, and most schools now have district applications (and/or school email) to communicate with students, and thus, prohibit communications on personal devices (with a few allowable exceptions).

It’s also likely that legislators will take another look at this law in the session beginning in January, with the addition of what some committee members called a “do not hire” list, which was also something Gov. Greg Abbott called for this year. While existing databases to check for allegations and convictions now are available, some lawmakers want a formal state registry that districts would be required to review before hiring educators. Legislators also will look at adding non-certified employees to many of the requirements in the law.