Published 12:18 pm Friday, March 10, 2017

Teachers who commit sex offenses would automatically lose their teaching certificate under a bill unanimously approved by the Senate Wednesday.   Senate Bill 7 author and Houston Senator Paul Bettencourt says that the number of inappropriate teacher-student relationships has grown dramatically. He pointed to a 43 percent increase in investigations into such cases in the first five months of this fiscal year as compared to last, up to 97 cases. Some of these cases involve the youngest student populations. “Members, when we have teachers having sexual relationships at elementary schools, I would consider this literally an epidemic,” he said.

Part of the problem, say bill supporters, is that when a teacher is guilty of sexual misconduct, many times they come to an arrangement with the administration to resign rather than get fired, to avoid legal liability for the school district. The problem is compounded when the teacher applies to work at a new school. When looking into the employment history, the new administration sees a clean record, and the teacher’s former employers might not even tell the prospective hirers about past incidents. This practice, called “pass the trash”, leaves students vulnerable to a sexual predator at school, and parents, other teachers and administrators are none the wiser.  “We’re talking about the health and safety of our kids,” said Bettencourt. “We cannot afford that these issues be swept under the rug anymore.”

In addition to the automatic revocation of teaching privileges for offending teachers, administrators who don’t report sexual misconduct by teachers to the state would face criminal charges. If it is discovered the administrator intentionally helped to cover up the offense, he or she could face state jail time. It includes provisions to aid the Texas Education Agency in investigating these cases. The bill also expands the reporting requirements from just superintendents to include principals. An amendment to the bill added by Plano Senator Van Taylor would strip any teacher convicted of certain sexual offenses involving students of their state pension. “Under no circumstances should a teacher who preyed on children receive a reward for that crime,” he said. All 31 members of the Senate co-sponsored the bill, leading to unanimous passage.

The Senate also passed a bill Wednesday aimed at protecting the First Amendment rights of pastors in delivering sermons. In 2014, the City of Houston issued civil subpoenas for the sermons of five area pastors they believed were opposing a local equal rights ordinance from the pulpit. The city eventually withdrew those demands, but bill author Joan Huffman says the action caused a national outcry. Her bill, SB 24, would make it illegal for a government entity to subpoena a preacher’s sermons for civil proceedings. “This bill is narrowly tailored to protect First Amendment rights and prevent government over-reach and intimidation,” she said. This bill also received unanimous support from the Senate.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 13 at 2 p.m.