Will Rhode Island finally pass a bill to make it illegal for teachers to have sex with students?
Let's hope 4th time's a charm
For the 4th year in a row, I have submitted testimony in support of a bill that would finally make it a crime in Rhode Island for teachers and other school employees to have sex with their students. Yup, it’s the worst version of Groundhog Day ever.
I am sorry to be the bearer of bad—actually grotesque tidings—about the current consent laws in two very blue states that pride themselves on being progressive and so much more enlightened than those other “backward” states. But Texas and Kentucky protect their students and other minors from sexual predation by adults in positions of authority and Rhode Island and Massachusetts do not.
Other states with a consent age of 16 have clauses in their laws that protect students from adults in positions of authority. Rhode Island and Massachusetts have no such language and efforts to change that have repeatedly failed.
Both teachers’ unions and the ACLU have gone on record in opposition to changing the law—they want it to remain legal under state law for educators to have sex with students.
While teachers’ union officials say or imply, “this isn’t really an issue here,” Hofstra University researcher Carol Shakeshaft, who has studied the issue more than anyone else, said this in an interview after her 2004 study was published:
Think the Catholic Church has a problem? The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.
In doing further research several years back, I stumbled upon the very troubling fact that sexual touching of year olds by adults, including those in positions of authority, is perfectly legal under current law in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I called the the Rhode Island’s Attorney General’s office to confirm and, the next day, I received a call from them confirming what I had found. I asked them directly, over the phone, “so you are saying that it is perfectly legal for a teacher or school bus driver to sexually touch 14 year olds, with their consent, as long as there is no penetration?” Their response was a simple, “yes”.
Here’s what parents, legislators, and community leaders in Rhode Island and Massachusetts need to know (though there is helpful information in here for everyone):
It is legal for teachers, school employees, school bus drivers, coaches and all other adults in positions of authority to sexually touch the children in their care, with their consent, in a non-penetrative way once the child turns 14.
It is legal for teachers, school employees, school bus drivers, coaches and all other adults in positions of authority to have sexual intercourse with the children in their care, with their consent, once the child turns 16.
The reason there are so many news stories about teachers being arrested for sexual misconduct with students is because those states have laws on the books that make it a crime. We almost never see any arrests in MA and RI because neither state considers it a crime under the law.
14 and 16 year olds are not capable of giving consent to adults who are supervising them, teaching them, coaching them, or taking care of them. This kind of abuse can do serious and long-lasting damage to victims.
There is an organization dedicated to stopping the sexual abuse and exploitation of students at the hands of educators—they are called S.E.S.A.M.E. and I have been in contact with them since 2017. If you are looking for information, their website is a good place to start.
The last study on educator sexual abuse commissioned by the US government was in 2004, before the explosion of cell phones and social media. The Washington Post reported in 2015 that “social media has provided an open gateway for classroom sexual predators.”
There is no reason to panic but there is reason to become informed and for laws to change. According to the US Department of Educaton’s 2004 study, one in ten students will be the victim of some kind of sexual misconduct by a school employee between kindergarten and high school graduation—misconduct is defined as sexting, comments that are sexual in nature, the sending and receiving of sexual images, kissing, inappropriate sexual touching, and sexual intercourse. One in ten equals 5 million students and that data is before the explosion of cell phones and social media.
In a USA Today investigation that lasted a year, each state received a grade for how it checks the background of teachers and how well it shares information about disciplinary action against teachers. Rhode Island earned a D. Massachusetts earned a F.
A movie was made about clergy abuse—it featured the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team. There has not been a movie made about the issue of sexual abuse in schools—it’s time for Spotlight 2.0.
The most determined sexual predators will always find ways to get around the system but Rhode Island and Massachusetts have literally put out the welcome mat, by way of weak laws. There is no excuse for that.
The Rhode Island governor, legislature, and community leaders owe it to parents—and students— to fix this now.
Below is the written testimony I submitted today.
Dear members of the Senate Judiciary Committee,
Rhode Island is one of only a few states that allows teachers and other school staff, under the law, to engage in sexual activity with the children in their care. While we watch teachers, coaches, substitutes and bus drivers across the country carted off in handcuffs for engaging in sex acts with minors, those stories never emanate from Rhode Island and the reason is simple—it is not a crime here.
It is currently legal in our state for teachers and other school staff to engage in sexual touching with students once they turn 14, “with their consent.” It is legal for penetration to occur between teacher and student once a student turns 16, “with their consent.” We all know that a child cannot consent to sexual relations with an adult who is in a position of authority and has the responsibiity of custodial care.
I found this so hard to believe when I first learned of it in 2019 that I reached out to the state attorney general’s office for guidance—Peter Neronha's office confirmed by phone that all of this sexual activity between teacher and student is, in fact, permitted under current Rhode Island law.
The AFT, NEA and ACLU are all on record in opposition to changing this law to protect students. I suspect that explains why, year after year, we fail to pass this bill and change the law.
Not only does their opposition ignore the uniqueness of the custodial relationship between teacher and student, but it also ignores the fact that the vast majority of teachers are paid with our tax dollars—we, the public, have a stake in potential inappropriate and predatory behavior. It’s bad enough that taxpayers can access virtually zero personnel information about public employees unless there is a criminal charge. The only way to get the doors of transparency around educator sexual abuse to fly open is to classify the behavior as criminal.
As of today, we as parents and community members are funding a system that keeps secrets from us about any and all abuse of children in our schools. This failure to protect children must change and perhaps the sordid details coming out of North Kingstown will finally make the difference and we'll get this bill passed.
I hear elected officials talk a lot about student safety when it comes to bullying and gun laws yet somehow, on the issue of sexual abuse, those same people fall silent. Please don't be silent.
I respectfully request that you support S- 2219 and prove to us, the parents and taxpayers of Rhode Island, that the safety and well-being of our children actually matters.