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As Texas cracks down on student-teacher relationships, school communication changes

As Texas cracks down on improper student teacher relationships, the means of communication and penalties against teachers will change.

Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 7, which aims to crack down on relationships across the state, into law.

According to Abbott’s office, the law ensures that teachers who engage in an inappropriate relationship with a student will lose their teaching certification/license and their taxpayer pension, and punishes administrators, superintendents and principals who turn a blind-eye to such misconduct.

The bill also requires school districts to adopt a written policy to prevent improper electronic communications between school employees and a student.

“Texas schools should be safe places for our children to learn and advance,” Governor Abbott said in a statement.

The penalties include:

Automatic termination and revocation of a teaching certificate for teachers that engage in improper relationships with students. Fines up to $10,000 on any superintendent or principal who neglect to report an improper relationship within 7 business days of discovering it. Jail time for principals or superintendents who intentionally conceal an improper relationship. Suspension, revocation, or denial of the certification of educators who assist an unscrupulous teacher in obtaining a job at another school. Suspension and annulment of an educator’s retirement annuity for educators convicted of having an an improper relationship with a student.

SB7 will take effect on September 1st, 2017.

Last school year, the Texas Education Agency told ABC-7 there were around 220 cases of improper relationships, the highest number the TEA saw in seven years.

“What teachers need to remember as they begin the new school year, it’s essential for teachers to be able to communicate with their students and with the parents of their students. The only thing that we caution all of our teachers about is the method that is used to communicate with students, and that their very careful about what it is that they communicate with their students. Whether it’s on a text message, on a phone or whether it’s your social media like Facebook Twitter,” said Norma De La Rosa, President of the El Paso chapter of the National Teachers Association.

De La Rosa tells ABC-7 if there is communication with students and teachers, that it is strictly professional and only about what’s going on in the classroom.

“We’re seeing that the penalties are becoming stiffer now if teachers cross that line inappropriately as far as communication with students. And I would caution teachers and I would advise teachers is that as long as they hold up their professional side on their part, if they see any inappropriate communication being sent from the student’s side, that it needs to be reported immediately to their administrator or their district administrator and that they not respond to that inappropriate communication coming from a student,” De La Rosa said.

EPISD is rolling out a new learning management system across all campuses which includes a new line of communication between students and and teachers, eliminating the need to communicate through social media.

Tim Holt, Director of Technology, Pilots and Innovation for EPISD tells ABC-7 the new learning management system, called ‘Schoology’ will be rolled out on Monday, when the school year begins.

Schoology will be a place where teachers can put all of their lesson plans and resources including quizzes and assessments for students to access 24/7. Parents will also be given access to the system, where they can monitor conversations between students and teachers.

“One of the neat things about Schoology is what’s called a walled garden. It’s very similar to social media but it’s a social media where students and teachers can interact without worrying about the outside world coming in. This is where we want all our teachers and all of our students to be, so that we don’t have to worry about inappropriate behavior happening. Teachers can see what the students are saying to each other, teachers can get messages back and forth from parents. Parents can can actually see what the teachers are saying to students so it’s a really great place to be completely transparent with all the communication going on,” Holt said.

While the system will be rolled out next week, parents will gain access in January, giving the district a chance to weed out bugs and fix any glitches. Holt says he believes the system will help curb the number of improper relationships across the state.

“I think what happens in those cases is social media outside the classroom was happening. If our teachers and students and our parents stay within this Schoology environment, we’re good to go, because there’s no way we can have inappropriate messaging going back and forth without someone seeing it immediately,” Holt said.

Holt adds the district can monitor and check in on any communication in real time.

“If we get wind of something inappropriately happening, we can check it immediately unlike other social media like Facebook, where if something was happening, we’d have to go to Facebook and ask them to send us their records. We can go to this stuff and see it immediately,” Holt said.

Gustavo Reveles, the district spokesman, tells ABC-7 the system will also help protect teacher’s privacy.

“This is a two-way street here. We want communication that is appropriate, that is beneficial, and something that parents feel comfortable using,” Reveles said.

Reveles adds the district works to ensure there isn’t anything inappropriate going on between teachers and students.

“We’re very hopeful that we’re hiring people that are very committed to ethical and proper behavior so yes, we talk to teachers about what’s proper, what’s improper, what the law is and we’re very comfortable with what we’re doing to help curb those types of situations,” Reveles said.

Reveles says they district necessarily ban teachers from using social media. They encourage teachers to use work pages to promote what the district is doing, but they ask teachers not to add or communicate with students on their personal pages.

“Those guidelines are pretty simple. Using common-sense when it comes to social media, being professional and realizing that they represent themselves as a teacher, but their school and their school district,” Reveles said.

The program will cost $250,000 a year or around $2.50 per students and teachers. Teachers are currently undergoing training for it, students will be given access Monday.

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