Last week, a Houston English teacher accused of maintaining a sexual relationship with her 13-year-old student, who impregnated her, turned herself in. The teacher, 24-year-old Alexandria Vera, is apparently not alone: According to a new report from the Texas Education Agency (TEA), "inappropriate" student–teacher relationships are on the rise in the state. The government agency, which is tasked with overseeing primary and secondary public education, has opened 162 investigations of educators charged with maintaining an "inappropriate relationship with a student/minor" this fiscal year. Because their fiscal year ends on August 31, that number is set to surpass data from previous years, and it follows a steady rise in the number of investigations opened since 2009.
According to Lauren Callahan, a representative for TEA, social media is a potential factor in the increase.
"We would venture to say that it's a cause," Callahan said over the phone, noting the ease with which services like Facebook and Instagram allow students and teachers to communicate unmonitored. "We want to make sure that if our educators need to communicate with their students, they are doing so appropriately and not abusing that right."
Read more: A Woman's Touch: When Pedophiles Aren't Men
While the agency doesn't have the authority to create a statewide social media policy—Texas is huge, Callahan points out, and its large urban school districts have drastically different needs than rural ones—they are "strongly encourage[ing] our districts to address specific needs that they have." This recommendation includes codifying a social media policy so that teachers and students know what is and is not OK—and so that authorities know how to handle things if they veer into virtual inappropriate territory.
Indeed, Vera's relationship with her pubescent student allegedly developed over Instagram. According to the Independent, Vera alleges that her summer school student badgered her for her Instagram account name and sent her a follow request even after she refused to give it to him. Things then escalated that fall, when Vera had the boy in her regular English eighth-grade class. Following what the publication calls a "period of flirting," the relationship began in earnest when Vera messaged the student on Instagram after he failed to show up to class. He asked for her number; the pair met in her car; they were soon having sex nearly every day.
He, like, grabbed her butt, and everybody saw it.
According to court documents, Vera claims that she and her student are in love and that his parents had known and been supportive of their relationship since a school open house in October 2015. It was only after she realized she was pregnant with the adolescent's child in January of this year that things began to go sour. Students at Stovall Middle School, where the relationship began, had started to talk about the weird behavior between the two, with one student telling the local news station ABC13, "He, like, grabbed her butt, and everybody saw it." After Child Protective Services showed up at Stovall to question the pair unexpectedly in February, Vera had an abortion.
Vera has been charged with continuous sexual abuse of a child; the Harris County District Attorney's office told ABC13 that the student's parents could be charged with failure to report child abuse. However, revoking a Texas educator's certification is a long, arduous process that can sometimes take years, says Callahan. "When we're talking about cases that involve student safety, we are going to do our very best to [revoke] the certificate so that the educator is never inside a classroom again," she told me. "We've got an investigative team, and they do good work. We try to get these things through the process as quickly as we can."
Read more: Most Child Sex Abusers Are Not Pedophiles, Expert Says
Callahan notes that the TEA cannot affect a school district's hiring decision. Nevertheless, they operate an online system that allows potential employers (and parents) to look up any certified public or charter schoolteacher in the state to check the status of their certification and see if there have been any investigations opened on them. At the bottom of Vera's page, a warning in bright red letters reads: "Note: This individual is currently under review by the SBEC Professional Discipline Unit." Her certification will expire in August, and is currently listed as "Inactive."