Will Texas Lawmakers Stem the Rising Tide of Educators Caught Preying on Students?

by

screen_shot_2017-03-06_at_3.56.33_pm.png

Jane Doe, as she’s known in court records, was brand new to Memorial High School when Edgewood Independent School District police officer Manuel Hernandez accosted the 13-year-old freshman. According to a federal lawsuit, Hernandez, a man in his mid-50s, watched the girl navigate the campus on security cameras each school day. Sometimes, he would detain her in his office just to grope her. 

The sexual rampage ramped up during Jane Doe’s sophomore year, according to the suit filed in December in San Antonio federal court. 

From August 2013 until his arrest in April 2014, another Edgewood employee, Memorial High chemistry teacher Marcus Revilla, forced Jane Doe into habitual sex, sodomy and molestation — more than 100 times, and all on school grounds, according to court documents. Revilla, who was approaching 45 years old at the time, also grabbed a camera and filmed homemade pornos with the child. 

Around winter break, officer Hernandez discovered Revilla’s sexual relationship with the girl, and threatened to stir up trouble with the law. He thought of an ultimatum: He’d keep his mouth shut if Jane Doe had sex with him. 

She did, twice. He didn’t say anything. 

Ultimately, Hernandez and Revilla started issuing hall passes to Jane Doe so that the middle-aged adults could continue their sexcapade during school hours. Several months later, Jane Doe became pregnant with Revilla’s child. 

During the 2015-2016 fiscal year (September 1 to August 31), the Texas Education Agency opened 222 inappropriate relationship cases across the state, all involving an educator and a student or minor – an all-time record. While Alabama leads the nation in the amount of cases per capita, Texas is tops in the overall number of these criminal incidents.

In Texas, an improper relationship between an educator and a student is a second-degree felony, a law that’s been on the books since 2003, and carries a penalty of two to 20 years in prison. Critics cite problems with the inappropriate relationship statute; for instance, the penal code only considers the relationship illegal if both the educator and student, who can be over 17 years old (the age of consent in Texas), are in the same school district. 

For the past seven fiscal years, there has been a steady rise in the volume of these cases – often blamed on the growth of social media, though there are no hard numbers to support the claim – as well as the gravity of the wrongdoings, especially in the San Antonio area. 

Lucinda Rodriguez Caldwell, a longtime teacher at Northside ISD’s Cable Elementary School, plea-bargained for a 10-year prison stint after repeated sexual encounters with a 12-year-old student. The incident boiled over after the boy’s father spotted Caldwell’s Ford Explorer outside of the family home at 3 a.m. and realized that the boy was inside the SUV with the teacher, a married mother of two who was 41 years old at the time of her November 2012 sentencing. 

That morning, Caldwell’s Ford Explorer sped off and the father pursued the vehicle for 30 miles. When San Antonio Police Department officers pulled over both cars, they found the 12-year-old behind the wheel of his teacher’s SUV. 

Caldwell, who could’ve faced life imprisonment if convicted on the original charge of aggravated sexual assault of a child, was given shock probation and released in May 2013 after serving six months on a charge of indecency with a child by exposure. Bexar County records show that Caldwell still owed nearly $4,200 in fines as of last fall.

In some instances, superintendents, principals, administrators and teachers look the other way, fearful of a scandal or a blow to their reputation. 

The Jane Doe suit – which names Memorial High, Edgewood ISD and Edgewood PD as defendants – contends that Memorial High principal Michael Rodriguez and Edgewood ISD superintendent José Cervantes flat-out ignored the red flags. Jane Doe’s lawyers say that the inappropriate relationships only came to light after SAPD, investigating another unrelated matter, found Jane Doe’s school ID and school-issued tablet in Revilla’s car.

Currently, there are three pieces of “passing the trash” legislation pending in the 2017 Texas Legislature: Senate Bill 7, filed by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), Senate Bill 653, authored by Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano), and House Bill 218, filed by Rep. Tony Dale (R-Cedar Park). The industry term refers to a school district that forces a teacher who has been accused of sexual misconduct to resign instead of reporting the alleged offense to Texas Child Protective Services, law enforcement or the TEA, which has the power to pull the teacher’s license.

Due to the absence of federal and statewide registries, teachers who have been accused of sexual misconduct with one of their students can quietly move to another Texas school district – and not even in a different state – and score a classroom job. Just like that.

“This is not simply just an urban versus rural or versus suburban [issue]. Everyone has a problem,” says Bettencourt. “It’s a statewide plague, quite frankly.” 

Unlike doctors and lawyers, there isn’t a national code of ethics for teachers, explains Terri Miller, president of the Las Vegas, Nevada-based Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation (S.E.S.A.M.E.). “The trash gets there in the first place because they’re not properly vetted or trained at the college level when they’re studying to become teachers… that’s a huge problem,” she says.

When an educator sexually preys upon a primary or secondary school student and convinces the vulnerable minor that he’s madly in love with the student when all he wants is sex, irreparable damage is done to the child and child’s family. 

As Miller puts it, “The wounds are to the core.”

When SAPD entered Jared Anderson’s home on an arrest warrant in February 2016, they found a sign on a door that read, “The last one to get naked has to get the first dare.”

Anderson, an English teacher at Judson High School in Converse, was allegedly hosting multiple “bros night” sex parties. Anderson, then-28-years-old and a group leader at a local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, encouraged teenaged boys to get naked and perform sex acts on each other.

Earlier in the school year, Anderson had been named Judson’s “teacher of the year.” The award, immortalized in rough-draft versions of the school’s 2016 yearbook, was obviously stripped away. But somehow, misprinted versions of the yearbook made it into circulation, and school officials scrambled to 86 the erroneous copies showcasing Anderson, who had been jailed on one felony count of indecency with a child and two felony counts for sexual performance of a child. 

It was yet another embarrassment for Judson ISD. Anderson, who’s scheduled to stand trial on March 20, was the third Judson High teacher facing child sex allegations within a two-month timespan. 

According to Texas Education Agency figures, statewide investigations into inappropriate relationships have increased by 80 percent since 2008. In the current fiscal year, from September 1, 2016 through January 31, TEA has already opened 97 new cases. TEA, which says that there hasn’t been a change in reporting requirements, had opened 68 cases at the same time last year.

It has become such a problem that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, as part of his top 10 legislative priorities ahead of the 2017 Texas Legislature, listed inappropriate educator-student relationships in the seventh spot, just after the so-called bathroom bill and before the controversial initiative requiring the burial or cremation of fetal remains. 

What’s driving the increase? 

“Any answer I’m going to give is going to be speculation. We have a couple of theories, but we’re not sure, to be honest,” says Lauren Callahan, information specialist with the Austin-based TEA. “We don’t collect data on how our inappropriate relationships cases get started, but our director of educator investigations [Doug Phillips] would tell you that 99.9 percent of them have some sort of impetus in electronic media and social media.”

“It is time for everyone involved to stop looking the other way and stamp this problem out,” adds Sen. Bettencourt, author of SB 7, which would automatically revoke a teacher’s certificate if the offender receives deferred adjudication for an educator misconduct offense or any offense requiring a teacher to register as a sex offender. 

According to Miller of S.E.S.A.M.E., a group founded in 1991 to thwart sexual exploitation and harassment of students by educators, the first federal legislation to really tackle improper teacher-student relationships was signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2015. Section 8546 of the Every Student Succeeds Act prohibits aiding and abetting sexual abuse in schools.

“What that essentially means is that now every state must put in place similar policy regulation or legislation,” says Miller, who cites Pennsylvania’s and Connecticut’s pass-the-trash laws, together with the federal legislation, as the country’s most powerful defenses against improper educator-student relationships. 

“The community is in the dark about this issue and the issue will continue to be the epidemic that it is,” says Miller, who’s based in Nevada. “We’ve had nine teachers, just since January 1, [2016], in Las Vegas who have been arrested.”

In January 2015, an SAPD officer, investigating an unrelated burglary call, stumbled upon something else: Maris Alexandra Gonzalez, a 23-year-old French instructor who taught at Madison and Churchill high schools, straddling one of her male students inside of a parked Mazda3. The car’s windows were fogged over. 

Gonzalez, who had been put on administrative leave by Northeast ISD a month before, confessed to the sexual relationship with the 15-year old. She eventually accepted a plea deal for five years deferred adjudication and paid a $2,000 fine. 

Gonzalez’s teaching license was forfeited, which seems like the no-duh thing to do. However, it’s not uncommon for a Texas teacher who has been accused of an improper relationship with a student to procure another teaching job in Texas. Between 2010 and 2016, according to a recent Austin-American Statesman investigation, at least six teachers, despite inappropriate relationship allegations, found educator jobs at another public, private or charter school in the state. (TEA doesn’t have the authority to monitor private and charter schools.) During that same time, the paper found that less than half of Texas teachers stripped of their teaching licenses due to allegations of improper relationships with students ever faced criminal charges, let alone served any jail time.

Because TEA investigation data isn’t available to the general public – and because there isn’t a Texas teacher registry – there’s nothing in the public record for many, many of those cases. Sen. Van Taylor’s SB 653 would create a statewide registry of teachers, at a cost of $3 million, who have lost their teaching licenses due to a criminal conviction. 

Meanwhile, Bettencourt’s SB 7 would expand the scope of reporting requirements to include not only superintendents, but principals as well. If SB 7 is signed into law, a failure to report within seven calendar days will be deemed a criminal offense. If a superintendent or principal intentionally fail to report, they could be slapped with a state jail felony. 

The Texas Senate Committee on Education held hearings for SB 7 and SB 653 on February 23; the conversation among lawmakers hit a wall over the bills’ language and how best to exonerate the innocent, whose lives and careers could be ruined over a false accusation. At the time of writing, the bills were pending in committee.

Each year, TEA, which can sanction or revoke a teacher’s teaching license, faces a tall order when tackling allegations of educator misconduct, whether it’s inappropriate relationships, abuse of school property or funds, or drug-related crimes. 

By the end of the 2015-2016 fiscal year, a staff-strapped educator investigation unit of seven members faced an overall cascade of 1,100 open investigations. That didn’t include the approximately 1,000 cases that TEA didn’t pursue because there weren’t enough facts to move forward. 

TEA has filed a legislative appropriations request for close to $400,000 for the 2018-2019 funding cycle in order to hire two additional full-time investigators and a staff assistant. “The number of cases overall have increased. Our staff certainly hasn’t increased to the same extent,” says TEA’s Callahan.

TEA wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the pending legislation, but spoke to the Current about general policies they would like to see implemented.

In addition to requiring all 1,200 of Texas’ public and charter school districts to adopt a local electronic/social media policy (some districts already do this, but it’s totally voluntary), TEA hopes for a change to the section of the Texas penal code related to improper educator-student relationships. Right now, the code only recognizes the relationship if both student and teacher are in the same school district.

“This is just an example, but if you’re an educator in district A and you live in a massive sprawling area, and the student lives three streets over but goes to district B, the penal code doesn’t recognize that as an inappropriate relationship between an educator and a student,” says Callahan. “We do. And if we find out about it, we will open a case. But the penal code does not.”

Often lost in these cases, which have surged in states all over the country, is the destruction to a child’s mental health. 

Rachel was a 15-year-old track star in a California high school when she says her coach first professed his love for her. “He said that if it was a different time and era, it would be ok,” she says.

Rachel (not her actual name; she wished to remain anonymous due to her career) remembers spending “unhealthy” amounts of time with the coach. They had sex after practice in a shed behind the track field and on road trips to out-of-town meets. Other times, Rachel says the coach paid her to clean his parents’ house so that they could sneak off and have sex there, too.

“I had no perspective of what sex and a relationship was. I was learning these things from him,” Rachel told the Current in a phone interview. “Is this love? A relationship? I didn’t know. I didn’t know I was being manipulated and used for his sexual gratification.”

When Rachel went away to college, she realized that the man was just using her for sex. She told her mom, who told a school counselor, who told the police, who recorded an incriminating phone call between Rachel and the coach, explains Rachel.

“They didn’t want to put me on the [witness] stand. They said it would hurt me more so he plea bargained to a lesser crime that wasn’t a sex offense,” says Rachel.

Rachel says that depositions collected by her lawyer revealed that the coach had sexual relations with three other underage students prior to Rachel.

“They were reported to the school and they didn’t do anything. It was a good ol’ boy network,” says Rachel. “I went through all of the pain and confession. I wish they would’ve investigated more.” Rachel says the man continues to coach in California.

Despite the nightmare, Rachel considers herself one of the lucky ones. “I’m still able to function and be productive,” she says.

Others aren’t so fortunate, according to S.E.S.A.M.E.’s Miller. 

“Something that many of the survivors and parents that have contacted our organization have all admitted that they have either attempted suicide or we’re hearing from parents that their child did commit suicide over this issue,” she says. 

“It’s very common for me to hear from parents… that their child has a restraining order against them from contacting them. It’s a terrible wedge that’s shoved between the victim and their family and friends,” adds Miller. “Part of how the perpetrator maintains control is to isolate them and make them believe that they’re the only person in the world who cares about them and is looking after their best interest. All the while, they have devious ideas.”

The road ahead is likely going to be brutal for Jane Doe, the Memorial High student impregnated by her chemistry teacher, Revilla. He was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison with no parole on a charge of producing child pornography, and received a 13-year state prison sentence for aggravated sexual assault of a child. Former Edgewood ISD police officer Hernandez, who allegedly coerced Jane Doe into having sex with him, awaits a Bexar County court trial on an aggravated sexual assault charge. 

The thing is, according to Jane Doe’s family, the sexual abuses could’ve ended way sooner. Their December 2016 lawsuit, which seeks an undetermined amount of monetary damages to help the girl support her son, says that Memorial High principal Michael Rodriguez knew about the relationship for months and didn’t say a word. 

“Upon information and belief, Revilla’s conduct was never reported to law enforcement authorities by any Edgewood employee or official,” the lawsuit claims. Last March, Edgewood ISD, a long troubled district that has agonized over a litany of issues, succumbed to control by TEA’s Commissioner’s Office, which pulled off the rarer-than-rare maneuver of appointing its own board of managers to replace Edgewood’s inept board of trustees.

Court documents state that after SAPD found Jane Doe’s belongings in Revilla’s stolen vehicle, Principal Rodriguez told Edgewood ISD superintendent Cervantes about Revilla’s conduct, which ended up sparking a Texas Rangers investigation. One of them told Edgewood ISD’s seven-member board about Revilla and the pregnant 14-year-old girl. 

Still, they did nothing. But that was apparently OK, because Revilla would soon be arrested and plead guilty to various federal and state crimes. 

In the end, justice was served. The San Antonio Police Department, the Texas Rangers, a U.S. federal judge and a Texas state judge took care of everything for them.



comment