Inappropriate teacher-student relationships in Texas at all-time high

Channel 2 Investigates reviewed dozens of cases of teacher misconduct

HOUSTON – The stories grab headlines and attention, whether it's the middle school teacher who gave a lap dance to a 15-year-old or the teacher at that same middle school who a few years later was impregnated by one of her students.

But the problem is not isolated to one campus or one district. It is a statewide concern, according to the Texas Education Agency.

State investigations into inappropriate teacher-student relationships are at an all-time high, with 207 cases opened in just the last 11 months. That number is way up from the 188 cases in all of the last school year.

The agency's director of investigations believes the actual number of relationships going on could be much higher.

"We believe there are unreported teacher-student relationships," said Doug Phillips, a former police officer who now oversees all teacher investigations at the agency.

According to Phillips, schools can make secret deals with teachers to keep the information out of the press.

"We know it's occurred where they have agreed not to report to us, if (the teachers) resign," he said.

The records kept by the state of where the incidents are happening are not broken down by district, campus or even type of school.

Phillips explained the agency only tracks by the educator, since that is who gets sanctions.

"We also think it could have a chilling effect, a more chilling effect, on school districts reporting these things," he said.

The investigations unit typically hears of cases in one of two ways: either an educator is arrested and the agency's database is notified when that teacher is fingerprinted, or a superintendent files what's known as a 249 report after an arrest or termination/resignation that resulted from misconduct.

Channel 2 Investigates reviewed dozens of 249 reports to provide a summary of where some of these incidents are happening.

Data obtained by Channel 2 investigates shows the teacher's name, status of investigation, date the investigation was opened and date closed and the case code for the type of misconduct.

Since 2011, this data shows more than 1,200 investigations into inappropriate relationships with students or minors. Only 144 teachers' licenses are listed as having been revoked.

According to the Texas Education Agency, many teachers agree to a temporary suspension, in what amounts to a plea bargain.

"It depends on the severity and nature of that relationship. Was it a sexual relationship? That's revoked, no question about it," Phillips said. "Was it a matter of texting but we can't prove there was any sort of relationship? It's very common for an educator to deny and for the victim to deny that anything happened, and it is not uncommon for parents to not cooperate at all."

A Houston-based educator is an example of how the second-chance system may go wrong. According to agency data and records, Brannon Watson was fired from the Houston Independent School District for inappropriately touching and making comments of a sexual nature in front of students. When the district fired him, the school found out that he'd been accused of something similar at his prior place of employment.

The agency suspended his license until 2014. In 2015, he was hired at CORE Academy, a Houston-based charter school. Halfway through that school year, the school fired him amid new allegations of sexual harassment.

An administrator for CORE Academy said in an email that the school had not been aware of Mr. Watson's past before hiring him, even though the agency claims those records are posted online.

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Even if Watson had his license revoked, CORE Academy could have hired him because charter schools are not required to hire teachers with valid certificates.

According to Philips, it’s a loophole he hopes to see the Legislature close in the next session.

Spotting inappropriate teacher-student relationships

Nicole McZeal Walter, associate dean at University of St. Thomas, feels there should be a no tolerance policy for students and teachers when it comes to social media in order to prevent the relationships.

"I don't agree with teachers and students being friends on Facebook or any other social media," Walter said.

She said students, other teachers and parents should look for teachers with their doors closed when students are inside or for students staying after class more often than not.

"Or teachers making very friendly comments or students making very friendly comments," she said.

Phillips said his investigations often involve texting and social media, and said parents should be wary of teachers contacting students late at night on personal devices, or continuous contact that does not have to do with school assignments.

Walter said if parents believe their child's relationship with a teacher is going into inappropriate territory, they should have a conversation with that teacher.

"When you're talking to a teacher, they want to know you're involved in their child's education. I think it would be totally appropriate to say, 'You know, I'd like to talk about this. I'm not feeling comfortable,'" she said.