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Paul Bettencourt

Republican Texas State Senator Paul Bettencourt sponsored a bill imposing stricter penalties on educators involved in student-teacher relationships, and barring them from further employment in education.

In response to a growing problem in the Lone Star State, Texas lawmakers are pushing a new bill to crack down on student-teacher relationships. The bill passed the House unanimously this Tuesday, after sailing unopposed through the Senate in March.

Student-teacher relationships have become a state problem, with nearly 100 reported cases of inappropriate relationships in the 2016 fall semester alone, the Texas Education Agency said.

The year before that, there were 222 cases reported. Reports have shown that the vast majority of these cases are not charged. The teacher is simply dismissed, and then is free to find employment in another district, in a practice referred to as “passing the trash.” That is if the case is even reported in the first place.

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“We now have a bar that shows that, in slightly (more) than half of these cases, nothing happens,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the lawmaker behind the bill. “You also have to remember that they’re innocent until proven guilty. But I think statistics show right now that, either through admission or omission, we’re not getting to the root of what is happening.”

There are a handful of reasons these aren’t dealt with, officials say. For one, the school district often mishandles it in the first place. To bring the case to court would be to publicly reveal the school or district’s shortcomings, possibly costing multiple officials their careers. Other times, there’s just not enough evidence. Sometimes these relationships are the domain of flirtatious text or social messages which don’t amount to a crime in themselves.

Or, they could be just accusations with no witnesses. Given that the victims are minors and by definition, immature, sometimes accusations are simply a way to ruin the career of a teacher that crossed them the wrong way. A lengthy investigation could ruin an educator’s reputation, regardless of the findings. Other times, the student themselves doesn’t want to get bogged down in a messy legal scandal or believes he or she has feelings for the educator and doesn’t want to cooperate with law enforcement.

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Texas SB 7, also known as the Pass the Trash Bill, passed unanimously through both the Senate and the House. Although, the House had amendments that have to back through Senate before reaching Governor Greg Abbot’s desk.

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“This is not a victimless crime,” Bettencourt said.  “The stories are very heartbreaking.”

The most publicized scenarios are younger teachers with high school upperclassmen. While the line here may be blurry considering some of these students are mere months away from adulthood, that’s not always the case.

“Some of these are horrifically bad cases like someone in their 30s having relationships with elementary school children…it’s just disgusting,” said Bettencourt.

Bettencourt hopes to end this with Senate Bill 7, the Pass the Trash Bill. It is a new legislation aimed at imposing stricter penalties for educators who violate their ethical position of trust over students.

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“I think SB 7 will now put a big stop to this dramatic rise and increase of inappropriate student-teacher relationships,” Bettencourt said.

Provisions of SB 7 include:

-It is now a crime for a teacher to be romantically involved with a student under 18, no matter where the student attends classes.  Oddly enough, up until now, there have still been exceptions.

-It would now be a crime for a school administrator to not report to authorities a case of teacher misconduct. They can face up to a $500 fine for failing to report this misbehavior.

-If a teacher is required to register as a sex offender, they would lose their teaching license.

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-If any educator knowingly helps a teacher with a sexual misconduct charge to get a job in education, that educator’s certification shall be revoked.

Upon employment, all teachers must now sign a waiver stipulating that they have never been involved in such incidents. If it later comes up otherwise, they will be immediately terminated. Schools must now notify parents if an educator has an inappropriate relationship with their child.

“[The Texas Education Agency] will have the ability to put together the case files and stop people from moving from one place to the next by pulling their educator certificate, so they won’t be licensed to teach anywhere in the state of Texas,” he said.  “And if you get a criminal charge, you’ll lose your pension and you might even lose the whole pension for whoever your spouse is.”

“Teachers who assault children should lose their license, and they should go to jail,” said Governor Greg Abbot in his February State of the State speech. “I want legislation that puts real consequences for those teachers, and we must also penalize the administrators who turn a blind eye to such abuse and pass these teachers along to other schools.”

A recent last-minute amendment to SB 7 called for the revocation of a teacher’s pension if they are convicted of an improper relationship. Although, they did leave the question of whether the defendant’s spouse could receive pension benefits to the discretion of the judge presiding over each individual case.

“There’s an overwhelming need and no reason not to try to do our best to stamp out the inappropriate teacher-student relationship that we have been having. It’s really been a bit of an explosion,” Bettencourt said.

The bill, which originated in the Senate and received amendments in the House, now goes back to the Senate for final review before reaching Governor Greg Abbot’s desk.