Professional boundaries with students | TCTA
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Professional boundaries with students

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Teachers are perceived as role models in the community, and the laws and regulations that mandate appropriate standards of conduct reflect that expectation. Failure to comply with these standards can lead to adverse employment action, certification sanctions and criminal consequences.

Sexual relationships with students

Sexual contact or indecent exposure with a minor is a felony that requires the perpetrator to register as a sex offender. It also is a felony for any school district employee to engage in a sexual relationship with a student, even if that student is of the legal age of consent. This prohibition includes students enrolled in schools where the teacher is not employed. A person who is a member of the Teacher Retirement System and is convicted of certain felonies that involve sexual abuse of a student or minor will be ineligible to receive a service retirement annuity from the retirement system.

In 2019, lawmakers responded to concerns about educator misconduct by mandating that the Texas Education Agency maintain and make available through an internet portal a registry of persons not eligible for employment in a school district, District of Innovation, open-enrollment charter school, or other charter entity, education service center, or shared services arrangement. Private schools are provided access to the registry.

A person who is the subject of a report alleging specified misconduct (the person was terminated or resigned and there is evidence the person abused or committed an unlawful act with a student or minor or was involved in a romantic relationship or solicited or engaged in sexual contact with a student or minor) is entitled to a hearing on the merits of the allegations. In the event that a report of alleged misconduct is sent by the superintendent or equivalent to TEA, the agency must promptly send notification that the person has 10 days to request a hearing and provide a written response.

If the person does not submit a written response to show cause why the commissioner should not pursue an investigation, the agency will make available through an online portal information indicating that the person is under investigation for alleged misconduct. If the person does not request a hearing in a timely fashion, the commissioner shall make a determination as to alleged misconduct based on the report submitted to TEA. If the commissioner determines that the person engaged in the described misconduct, the person will be added to the do-not-hire registry. If the person requests a hearing and the final decision determines that the person did not engage in the alleged misconduct, the agency will immediately remove from the portal the information indicating the person is under investigation for alleged misconduct.

A school district must complete an investigation into allegations of educator misconduct, even if the educator resigns from the school district. School districts must notify the parent or guardian of a student with whom an educator allegedly engaged in an improper relationship, regardless of whether the educator resigned or was terminated.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act prohibits school employees from aiding another school employee in obtaining a new job if there is probable cause to believe there has been sexual misconduct with a minor or student. Applicants for many school district positions must submit a pre-employment affidavit disclosing a charge, adjudication or conviction based on an inappropriate relationship with a minor.

If an individual is found to have engaged in sexual conduct or a romantic relationship with a student or minor, regardless of age or enrollment status in the district, the State Board for Educator Certification will permanently revoke that educator’s teaching certificate.

Solicitation of a romantic relationship

Solicitation of a sexual or romantic relationship with a student also can result in adverse employment action and certificate sanctions, even if the relationship is not ultimately consummated.

The criminal prohibition of online solicitation of a minor includes communications between an employee at a school and a student. A person commits this offense if they knowingly solicit a minor to meet with another person with the intent that the minor will engage in sexual contact with the person. Conviction of online solicitation of a minor is a felony.

SBEC may sanction the teaching certificate of an individual who has engaged in deliberate or repeated acts that can be reasonably interpreted as soliciting a sexual or romantic relationship. Prohibited acts include, but are not limited to:

  • Communications tending to show that the educator solicited a romantic relationship with the student;
  • Making inappropriate comments about a student’s body;
  • Making sexually demeaning comments to a student;
  • Making comments about a student’s potential sexual performance;
  • Requesting details of a student’s sexual history;
  • Requesting a date;
  • Engaging in conversations regarding the sexual problems, preferences or fantasies of either party;
  • Inappropriate hugging, kissing or excessive touching;
  • Suggesting that a romantic relationship is desired after the student graduates, including post-graduation plans for dating or marriage; and
  • Providing the student with drugs or alcohol.

Educators should take care to avoid situations in which professional boundaries become poorly defined. Inviting students to your home, meeting them for social activities that are not school-sponsored, or developing personal relationships with them can create the perception of inappropriate conduct. Avoid such situations with students in the absence of previously existing social relationships with them.

Suspected child abuse

An educator who believes that any student or minor may be a victim of sexual abuse is required to make a report to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services within 48 hours of becoming aware of the possibility of the abuse. This responsibility may not be delegated to someone else, and failure to make the required report is a criminal offense. For more information, see child abuse or neglect reporting requirements.

Electronic media and social networking

School districts are required by law to adopt a policy regarding electronic communications between employees and students. Most districts’ policies extend standards of conduct to use of electronic media and social networking sites, and the Code of Ethics imposes limitations on such communications.

Educators are held to the same standards of conduct in their use of electronic media and social networking as for any other public communication. All communications with students or minors, whether electronic or in person, should be professional and appropriate.

Many districts have even adopted policies specifying that teachers may communicate with their own children and their children’s friends using personal social networking sites, but may not do so with current or former students with whom there is no separate social relationship. Some districts have policies that designate only specific individuals who may send text messages to students and place time limitations on when educators may communicate with students. TCTA-initiated legislation that was passed in 2017 says that teachers may decline to disclose their personal email or cellphone number to students.

Continuing education requirements

Information about inappropriate relationships, boundaries and communications between educators and students must be included in the content presented in each educator preparation program. Continuing education requirements for certificate renewal specify that instruction regarding understanding of appropriate relationships, boundaries and communications between educators and students is one of the topics that must be covered in at least 25% of the CPE hours required of a teacher every five years.