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Sexual misconduct case against teacher bogged down by definition of “student”

Reinstating the discipline of a teacher who admitted to having sex with an 18-year-old high school student, the Court of Appeals of Texas, Austin, reversed a trial court and held February 25 that the state Board for Educator Certification had legal authority to revoke the teacher’s certificate based on the facts and evidence (State Board for Educator Certification v. Lange, 2016 WL 785538).

The teacher, Robert Lange, argued that the term “student” in the prohibition of the Educators’ Code of Ethics against educator-student “sexual conduct” was undefined. Lange, who was acquainted with the student through her enrollment in a martial arts class that he taught, contended that the definition did not extend to his “private and lawful sexual activity” in a non-school setting with a student enrolled at a school other than the one at which he taught.

Lange argued that since the statute said only that “the educator shall not solicit or engage in sexual conduct or a romantic relationship with a student,” and “student” was not defined, the board exceeded its authority in disciplining him.

Since the statute lacked an actual definition of “student”—leaving some room for ambiguity— the court said that it would fall back on the “ordinary meaning” of the term. “A straightforward, ordinary-meaning construction of ‘student’ in the context of its rules and the overarching statutory scheme would include a person who attends one of the schools with respect to which the board exercises jurisdiction over educators, which undisputedly includes Texas public schools like [the student] attended,” the court stated. The statute, the court added, does not say the student must be attending the same school where the educator teaches.

The court relied on a 2015 ruling it had made (State Board for Educator Certification v. Montalvo, 2015 WL 7708947) that the board’s delegated authority encompassed such powers as revoking certificates upon finding that an educator is “unworthy to instruct or to supervise the youth of this state,” which it termed a “broad-based ‘moral and mental’ fitness standard having deep historical roots in Texas educator-certification law.” Based on this case law, the court rejected Lange’s argument that the standard exceeded the board’s statutory authority and it reversed and remanded the lower court decision.