Parents have voiced concern about a former Denton ISD teacher’s tutoring business after a district judge issued a protective order against her this summer at the request of a boy’s family.
Judge Margaret Barnes signed off on a protective order June 19 ordering Vanessa Suarez-Arispe to stay away from one of her former fifth-grade students and his family. Court documents allege Suarez-Arispe engaged in “stalking” behavior, such as dropping by the boy’s house unannounced and contacting him using a disposable cellphone she bought for him.
Suarez-Arispe resigned from her teaching job at Woodrow Wilson Elementary in the midst of an internal investigation regarding inappropriate conduct with a student, Denton ISD spokesman Mario Zavala said. The woman, who taught for decades in the district, now runs an outside tutoring service called Arispe Can Help.
The case is one of the latest in the state’s growing string of student-teacher relationship investigations by the Texas Education Agency as lawmakers ramp up reporting laws for school principals and superintendents.
Suarez-Arispe did not appear for court proceedings and referred the Denton Record-Chronicle to her Round Rock-based attorney, John McCormick, after the newspaper made several requests for comment. McCormick had not responded to requests for comment by Wednesday evening.
Communication between Suarez-Arispe and the boy began in September 2017 when she started tutoring him after school, according to testimony provided by the boy’s father in a court affidavit. Once his grades improved, the family told the teacher their son no longer needed tutoring, but Suarez-Arispe continued contacting the boy on his cellphone.
The communication continued over winter break, the affidavit said. On Dec. 15, Suarez-Arispe drove to the boy’s mother’s house in Celina, where he was staying, to drop off food and a birthday card.
Five days later, the boy’s father found his son using a “burner phone,” a term typically used to describe temporary prepaid cellphones used to communicate in discrete ways. The boy said Suarez-Arispe had given him the phone.
When his parents asked the teacher about it, she said it was for a class project and had gotten permission from the boy’s mother to give him the phone. The mother denied those claims, according to the affidavit.
The parents notified school officials about the events, and the district launched an internal investigation, which found text messages from Suarez-Arispe sent several times per day that said things like “Good morning,” “Good night” and “I love you.” The school also contacted the Denton Police Department and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Suarez-Arispe resigned in February during the investigation but tried to maintain contact with the boy, the affidavit said.
On April 5, the family said Suarez-Arispe dropped off tamales at their house. Weeks later, the boy was called out of class by another teacher and told to answer her classroom phone. Suarez-Arispe was on the other line and said, “Thanks for not throwing me under the bus,” according to the affidavit.
She asked if she could meet the boy after school, but he declined and alerted administrators.
For the rest of the school year, the boy was not allowed to leave campus without a staff escort. He transferred to another school district this school year.
The family worked with attorneys from Denton County Friends of the Family to put the protective order in place. Donna Bloom, the agency’s director of legal services, said that while Friends of the Family mostly deals with adult domestic violence and sexual assault cases, the agency has been known to advocate on behalf of children.
Bloom said the case was referred to the organization after the police department declined to file charges against Suarez-Arispe.
“Sometimes there’s not a criminal justice solution, but there is a civil remedy,” Bloom said. “[The family] simply wanted this behavior to end, and as far as I know, it’s worked.”
Until recently, Suarez-Arispe was widely viewed as a beloved teacher and model employee. She taught in Denton for 25 years and was named her campus’s Teacher of the Year in 2016.
According to a 2015 Denton Record-Chronicle story, more than 100 of Suarez-Arispe’s former students hosted a reunion in Denton to honor their teacher.
Some drove in from Abilene and Lubbock, while others came from Oklahoma for the event.
“From the manners she instills in children to the memories she gave us ... I just love this woman,” former student Emily Ray said at the time.
Suarez-Arispe’s husband, Danny Arispe, committed suicide in their Denton home in March 2017, according to medical examiner’s records.
His obituary said Arispe was known for his “upbeat attitude and wonderful sense of humor.” Suarez-Arispe wrote she was “incredibly thankful” for their loving partnership over 15 years.
Suarez-Arispe is far from the only teacher to fall under scrutiny for alleged misconduct.
The number of TEA investigations into inappropriate student-teacher relationships has grown steadily over the past decade. During the latest 2017-18 fiscal year that ended Sept. 1, the agency opened 429 investigations, a 42 percent increase from the previous year.
Improper relationships with students are considered a second-degree felony in Texas and can result in a fine up to $10,000 and up to 20 years in prison.
Lauren Callahan, a spokeswoman with TEA, said the agency opens investigations one of two ways: if an educator is arrested, or if a superintendent files a misconduct report that results in the termination or resignation of a teacher.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law in September 2017 that increases the penalties for principals and superintendents who don’t report educator misconduct, making the offense a felony punishable by state jail time or a hefty fine.
Zavala, the Denton ISD spokesman, said the district turned over its investigation of Suarez-Arispe to TEA upon its completion. Suarez-Arispe’s teaching certification is still valid, but a note at the bottom of the certification webpage says she is under review by the agency’s investigations division.
A sanction against her could result in a revocation of her teaching license. Callahan said that while timelines vary on each investigation, some can take years.