Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Fighting for the Safety of Our Children

They should have been four bills that were incredibly easy to pass.  When people asked me what I was working on, I said “trying to keep teachers from having sex with their students.”  Inevitably, the reaction was laughter – “surely you aren’t getting any no votes on that?” or “how is that not a law already?”  I wish it were that simple, but nothing in politics is simple.

What we wanted to do was establish a registry of people who had a history of inappropriate conduct with students – a “Do Not Hire” list.  I represent the private schools in Texas, but this list would cover public and private school teachers. It would be a comprehensive list to make sure that all types of schools had the information that they need to hire the right people to teach our children.  All schools would be required to report to this list if they fired a teacher, or allowed a resignation, for inappropriate conduct with students. We have these lists for nursing assistants and police officers, are the students in our schools not worthy of the same kind of protection? 

Not necessarily.  Not when billions of dollars of public school funding and other “priorities” get in the way.   The 86th legislative session in Texas was about public school finance reform and property tax reform.  Anything else took a back seat. While our bills were not at the top of anyone’s priority list (except for the private schools), we made good and steady progress working the committees and bringing these bills to everyone’s attention. 

And then it was that time of session when the gloves come off.  You have to hang on for dear life because time is running out, tempers are flaring, and bills die left and right for no good reason.  Our student safety bills were held hostage in negotiations on bills that had nothing to do with keeping children safe. They were caught in a stew of long-held resentments, pet projects, and trying to save face after floating an unpopular tax idea.  You know, politics as usual.

Until a few legislators and their dedicated staffers decided that this issue is too important to get lost in these fights.   There would be children preyed upon and abused by educators in the two years until the next legislative session when we could take this up again.  Senator Paul Bettencourt, who passed the original “pass the trash” bill last session that would keep public school districts from allowing teachers to resign after this misbehavior and go work in another district, knew that this was the next step in keeping kids safe in all types of schools.  He broke through the chatter, made some deals, quieted skeptics, and pushed these bills to the finish line. Representative Morgan Meyer leaned hard on the education committee to include our Do Not Hire list in the enormous school finance bill in the House. They kept the pressure on. They didn’t give up.  We didn’t know until the very last second, but they got it done.

It didn’t end up on the national news.  It was a footnote in the story of this huge influx of additional money into public schools, but it is a story of a few people who recognized the moral imperative of making some changes to keep our kids safe.

The new laws took effect on September 1st.  State agencies are working quickly to establish this database and the processes of reporting to the Do Not Hire registry.  We know that reports have already been made, in less than a month, so schools will be able keep these predators out of their classrooms in the future.  Texas parents have these few dedicated legislators and staffers to thank for their tenacity and vision. Thank you, Senator Paul Bettencourt, Marc Salvato, Representative Morgan Meyer, and Aaron Gibson, for pushing through and making Texas classrooms safe from child predators.  

Let’s hope legislators and leaders in other states are able to use what we we’ve accomplished in Texas to protect the students in their schools.

Click here to see a news clip of me discussing the the Do Not Hire List.

Laura Colangelo
Laura Colangelo is the Executive Director of the Texas Private Schools Association, an advocacy organization representing the over 870 private, accredited schools in Texas in the state legislature and in DC.  In this role, she is the “public voice for private schools in Texas.”  She has had three successful legislative sessions in which she passed bills regarding credit card fees, epi-pens, and school marshals in private schools.  This past session, she passed four student protection bills that keep predators out of private schools in the state.  These became law on September 1st. Prior to this role, she was the head of an Episcopal preschool in Austin, Texas, focused on providing a quality early childhood educational experience in a historically under-served population.  Her focus was on providing an individualized and developmentally-appropriate curriculum with an eye to school readiness.  This approach resulted in exponential growth for the school and the community. Laura received her Bachelor's Degree from Duke University and her Master's in Education at the University of Kentucky.  After teaching middle and upper school Spanish in both public and private schools in Houston, she focused her University of Texas doctoral work in curriculum and instruction on the integration of minority students in private schools.  She is able to use both her experience and research not only to represent the interests of private schools, but also to advance education policy focused on quality outcomes for all students in Texas.


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