6 On Your Side: Teacher & Student, Too Close

A recent increase in inappropriate relationships between teachers and students in Texoma has Newschannel 6 digging for answers. We're talking with education leaders and concerned parents about why the number of cases is going up and what we can do to stop it.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) keeps track of the numbers on a statewide level, so they can better track teachers if they move from one school district to another.

The Lone Star State had 141 cases of inappropriate student/teacher relationships reported in the 2009-2010 fiscal year. By the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the number of cases jumped to 163.

TEA Spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said the rise in cases is partially due to our technology-driven environment. "You have teachers who are texting and they have Facebook pages, and students and teachers have a lot more interaction over social media," said Culbertson.

It's up to leaders in each school district to decide what their Facebook and texting policy for teachers communicating with their students.

Most teachers send completely innocent messages, like reminders about homework or other class work. But concerned parents say the potential is still there for these forms of communication to get out of hand.

"Sometimes I'd rather see a teacher have a good relationship with their students, but not to the point where it's going to get off the track," said Brenda Bender whose son is a Texoma junior in high school.

"I would rather it come through a parent, rather than them having their teacher's phone number," said Jessica Smith, the parent of a sophomore in a Texoma high school. "I don't really think that's appropriate; I wouldn't be very comfortable with that."

Parents we spoke to say they keep an open communication with their kids, and trust they would come to them if anything inappropriate was going on with a teacher.

Culbertson said this parent involvement may also have to do with the rise in the number of cases, because parents are more likely to report any inappropriate activity.

Still, with cases on the rise, Texoma school districts are being forced to take action.

After a teacher admitted to having a relationship with a 15-year-old student in the Vernon Independent School District, Superintendent Tom Woody said district leaders reviewed all teacher/student interactions.

"The main thing we looked at was trying to identify was there places where our staff or our students were at a higher risk," said Woody.

The one change Vernon ISD leaders decided to make was to no longer allow teachers to tutor students one on one. "If you only have one student that walks in, then you need to use your best judgement on, you know, bringing in another staff member or re-scheduling with that student or try to arrange ahead of time that you have a commitment from more than one student to show up," said Woody.

Vernon ISD did have both a Facebook and texting policy in place before the Vernon teacher had an inappropriate relationship with a student, and those policies have not since been changed.

Woody said teachers are allowed to text message their students if it is related to class instruction. They can also use Facebook to communicate with students as long as they use a separate page from their personal one.

Culbertson with the TEA said these inappropriate student/teacher relationships do not always involve social media. While every case is different, Culbertson said they usually start with a teacher seeming to care a little too much about a particular student.

"Taking the student on special trips or giving them, you know, rides home after school, it starts out," said Culbertson. "Then it graduates to gifts, notes, talking to them at inappropriate times or texting them at 2 o'clock in the morning."

Culbertson said criminal charges may or may not be filed, depending on how far the relationship goes. It may never get to a sexual level, but the TEA can still investigate and apply a number of punishments.

"A verbal warning to the person, a certificate can also get an inscribed reprimand, which is basically a notation on their certification here on record that they've been sanctioned for an incident, or you can put their certificate on probation," said Culbertson.

If criminal charges are filed against the teacher, their certification would be revoked, on top of any legal sanctions.

Some teachers who have their certification revoked can reapply in five years. The decision whether to grant them re certification is up to the TEA.

However, teachers who are found to have "engaged in or solicited any sexual contact or romantic relationship with a student or minor" will have their license permanently revoked and can never reapply again.

Christina Myers, Newschannel 6