The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC), a Texas Education Agency (TEA) division, certifies and monitors educational professionals for compliance with applicable rules and laws. If someone files a complaint against an educator, the SBEC will investigate the complaint and file disciplinary proceedings as needed. Due to the pervasive social media usage today, contact between teachers, other educators, and students via social media can lead to disciplinary proceedings that result in severe sanctions.
Teachers and Inappropriate Communication with Students
The TEA has not explicitly prohibited teachers from communicating with students via any method, including social media. However, the 19 Tex. Admin. Code §247.2(I), which provides Standard 3.9 of the Code of Ethics and Standard Practices for Texas Educators, states:
The educator shall refrain from inappropriate communication with a student or minor, including, but not limited to, electronic communication such as cell phone, text messaging, email, instant messaging, blogging, or other social network communication. Factors that may be considered in assessing whether the communication is inappropriate include, but are not limited to:
- the nature, purpose, timing, and amount of the communication;
- the subject matter of the communication;
- whether the communication was made openly, or the educator attempted to conceal the communication;
- whether the communication could be reasonably interpreted as soliciting sexual contact or a romantic relationship;
- whether the communication was sexually explicit; and
- whether the communication involved discussion(s) of the physical or sexual attractiveness or the sexual history, activities, preferences, or fantasies of either the educator or the student.
Based on these factors, the SBEC might examine whether communications occurred late at night when parents were more likely not to see or interrupt them. The frequency of the communications also is a concern; was it a single message over 30 days, or multiple communications each day for 30 days?
Likewise, the subject matter of the messages is important. If you would not discuss the subject in front of a classroom full of students, then discussing it privately with a student is likely inappropriate. Using social media apps like Snapchat, in which messages disappear almost immediately, could also be construed as concealing communications between a teacher and student. Since social media and electronic communications lack social cues and body language, the risk of misconstruing statements, “likes,” and emojis are high, so avoiding these interactions altogether is advisable.
Furthermore, some school districts have specific policies and rules, such as requiring you to contact or copy a child’s parents on any electronic communications you might send the child, including text messages and social media. Some school district policies prohibit any such contact between teachers and students altogether. And violating a school district policy could be grounds for investigating a teacher for misconduct.
Even if communication via social media is innocent or said jokingly, it is easy for the student, a parent, or a third party to misconstrue it. Likewise, any word or statement that appears improper or inappropriate can be dangerous for the teacher. As a result, the best practice is for teachers, to the extent that they have social media accounts, to keep them private and refrain from “friending” students or communicating with them via those accounts.
Teacher-Student Interaction on Social Media and Criminal Offenses
Inappropriate communications between teachers and students on social media platforms or other electronic means also have the potential to be criminal offenses. These crimes could serve as another basis for disciplinary action against a teacher by the SBEC.
Texas Penal Code § 33.021 defines online solicitation of a minor as intentionally contacting a minor “over the Internet, by electronic mail or text message or other electronic message service or system, or through a commercial online service” to “communicate in a sexually explicit manner” or “distribute sexually explicit material” or “knowingly solicit a minor to meet another person, including the actor, with the intent that the minor will engage in sexual contact, sexual intercourse, or deviate sexual intercourse with the actor or another person.” This offense is a felony of the third degree and a felony of the second degree if it involves a minor younger than fourteen or whom the actor believes to be younger than fourteen at the time of the offense.
Sanctions for Inappropriate Communications with Students
The SBEC can impose various sanctions against a teacher under 19 Tex. Admin. Code §249.15. These sanctions include the following:
- Indefinitely or temporarily restricting the issuance, renewal, or holding of a teaching certificate;
- Issuing a reprimand;
- Suspending or probating a suspended certificate;
- Revoking or canceling a certificate; or
- Imposing any conditions or restrictions on a certificate necessary to facilitate the rehabilitation and professional development of the educator or to protect students, parents of students, school personnel, or school officials.
In the case of a teacher who engages in any sexual contact or romantic relationship with a student or minor, solicits any sexual contact or romantic relationship with a student or minor, or possesses or distributes child pornography, the SBEC must permanently revoke the teacher’s certificate.
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Factors to Consider When Determining Sanctions in Disciplinary Cases
19 Tex. Admin. Code §249.17 outlines factors for the TEA, SBEC, and administrative law judges to consider in deciding the appropriate sanctions in disciplinary proceedings, including the following:
- The seriousness of the violation;
- Whether the misconduct was premeditated or intentional;
- Any attempted concealment of misconduct;
- A history of prior misconduct and SBEC sanctions;
- Any potential danger the conduct poses to the health and welfare of students;
- The effects of the prior conduct upon any victims;
- Whether sufficient time has passed and sufficient evidence exists of rehabilitation;
- The effects of the conduct on the educator’s good moral character and ability to be a proper role model for students;
- Whether the sanction will deter future violations; and
- Any other relevant circumstances or facts.
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We Can Help Protect Your Educational License
At Bertolino LLP, a teacher certification defense lawyer can guide you through your disciplinary proceedings and defend you against misconduct allegations. We are here to help you fight back to protect your educational certification and preserve your career. Call us today at (512) 515-9518 to reach the offices of Bertolino LLP, or contact us online.