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Lawmakers Mull Improper Teacher-Student Relationship Surge

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AUSTIN (AP) — Investigators have seen the number of cases involving inappropriate relationships between teachers and students climb steadily in recent years, but criminal convictions for such behavior remain rare, experts told a Texas Senate panel Monday.

That disclosure came as the chamber's powerful Education Committee began discussing ways to curb inappropriate classroom relationships ahead of the 2017 legislative session. Senators are studying the possible impacts of limiting teacher-student social media contact, as well as increased teacher and school administrator training and changes to investigation and enforcement techniques.

The number of teacher-student relationships investigated by the Texas Education Agency has increased for seven straight years, from 123 in fiscal year 2008-2009 to 188 this past fiscal year.

Doug Phillips, the agency's director of educator investigations, didn't have exact figures but estimated that the most recent fiscal year's investigations led to perhaps 100 people arrested.

"Convictions are pretty rare, in fact, really rare," Phillips said.

Senators said they were especially worried about teachers being punished by accepting transfers to other school districts in the state, where past inappropriate relationships may not be reflected in their permanent record and they could start another one.

Phillips said that while officials can use evidence of inappropriate relationships to strip teachers of state certifications, current law can make it difficult to charge teachers unless sexual contact with a student takes place.

"We try to catch it, if we can, early, when they're just starting to groom the child ... they're starting to, kind of, date the student," Phillips said.

Harris County prosecutor Katie Warren said she filed between 10 and 30 cases involving inappropriate teacher-student relationships recently in a county that includes Houston and that "the vast majority" pleaded guilty to receive a lesser sentence. Warren also said that by the time cases progress to her office, the accusations are rarely unfounded — despite concerns false claims could potentially ruin teachers' careers.

David Thompson, a University of Texas at San Antonio professor who has studied and written about Texas teachers' code of ethics, said any text messages sent from a teacher to a student should be automatically forwarded to parents and the teacher's supervisor.

He said social media was helping foster inappropriate relationships since "it provides the adult educator with what amounts to unsupervised access to students."

But Jamie Wilson, superintendent for Denton schools, was quick to remind the committee, "I think it's really difficult to legislate appropriate behavior."

"We have to put some parameters in place," he said, "but to think that you can control for every single thing that could ever happen is not real."

(© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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