Saturday, October 20, 2007

Why Am I Not Surprised?

Texas Ranks 2nd in Teachers Sanctioned for Sexual Misconduct

The Associated Press reports:
From Aug. 4 to Aug. 17, an assistant band director was arrested, a former substitute teacher was convicted and an ex-middle school teacher was sentenced.

The three men — one in suburban Fort Worth, one in suburban Dallas and one in Austin — each faced charges of sex crimes against students.

It was a typical two weeks in Texas.

A review by The Associated Press shows Texas is No. 2 in the nation in the number of teachers sanctioned for sexual misconduct. Texas Education Agency records indicate at least 200 teachers have active sanctions on their certifications for sexual misconduct that occurred between 2001 and 2005. At least 50 more certified teachers faced sex crime allegations, but had their sanctions lifted or have decisions pending.
More than 1,300 certified teachers in Texas received sanctions from 2001-05 because of allegations that ranged from the mundane to the macabre. They included mail fraud and violating open records, as well as kidnapping and attempted murder, according to TEA records.

"And that's just what we hear about," said Peggy Bittick, a Houston attorney whose client says she was sexually assaulted in school. "There are so many kids who never report what happens to them."

The Texas figures were gathered as part of a seven-month investigation in which AP reporters sought records on teacher discipline in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Across the country, sexual misconduct allegations led states to take action against the licenses of 2,570 educators from 2001 through 2005. That figure includes licenses that were revoked, denied and surrendered.

Young people were victims in at least 69 percent of the cases, and the large majority of those were students.

Nine out of 10 of those abusive educators were male. And at least 446 of the cases the AP found involved educators who had multiple victims.

There are about 3 million public school teachers in the United States.

The Texas figures seem typical of what's happening nationally. While the overall percentage remains low, sexual misconduct cases happen on a regular basis — despite legal statutes and extensive training covering ethical behavior.

"It just keeps showing up," Bittick said. "We need more and more education and more and more scrutiny. We have to have everyone be accountable."

Most states, including Texas, have legal statutes that deal with teachers who cross the line. In 2003, Texas lawmakers added a new crime to the penal code: improper relationship between an educator and student, a second-degree felony.

And almost all college education programs cover proper, ethical behavior "explicitly," said Mike Sacken, an education professor at Texas Christian University who refers to transgressions as "border crossings."

Education has helped. While they don't dismiss the problem as trivial, most experts say teachers probably are misbehaving today about as often as they did in years past.

"If you just watch Lifetime, you think this happens in every high school in America every 15 minutes," Sacken said. "The huge majority of teachers and students never experience this."

Still, such "border crossings" can have devastating consequences. Bittick, the Houston attorney, said her client was 14 at the time of her alleged assault. Her client had been a troublemaker, Bittick said, but her behavior deteriorated afterward and she ended up in Texas' youth prison system.

The trouble she experienced are "all linked to this happening," Bittick said. The teacher's aide in question was acquitted in court. Bittick's client has since filed a lawsuit, which is pending.

Such cases eventually land on the desk of Chris Jones, a senior counsel in the Office of Investigations at the TEA. His office deals with two types of cases most often, he said: ethics complaints and sexual misconduct.

"When I went to high school, the same type of misconduct went on but nobody cared," Jones said. "I think there is a lot more awareness and a lot more reporting. People are more aware, more likely to get caught and more likely to be reported."

Computers and telephones have been crucial to Jones' work as lead investigator. Electronic records — such as text messages, e-mails or phone records — are often the best evidence in sexual misconduct cases.

"Quite frankly, a lot of these cases are consensual and the student will protect the educator," Jones said. "I have prosecuted several cases where the student has denied the relationship, but we have love letters, cell phone records, computer chats, and will prosecute on that basis."

Anecdotal evidence suggests the most likely perpetrators are young teachers or those who are highly involved in sports or student groups.

Earlier this year, a suburban McKinney substitute teacher testified that he showed students pornographic pictures, took topless photos of a 15-year-old female student and romantically pursued an underaged girl. The teacher, who was convicted of indecency with a child, said it didn't occur to him that his actions were inappropriate. He said he only considered his reputation as a "cool teacher."

It is often coaches, drama teachers and club advisers, Sacken said, who face sexually charged allegations.

"You're driving in cars to places," Sacken said. "You're seeing them at school at 7 at night when nobody's there. You have to be more disciplined in making sure students know where boundaries are."

Jones, who sends his children to public schools and praises the "vast majority" of teachers as ethical, said the state must come down hard on those who are not.

"It's a tough job," he said. "I deal with some allegations that, frankly, are disturbing. As a parent, I hate to think this type of thing occurs."

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