We are a year into the #metoo movement and it remains legal in the state of Rhode Island for teachers, coaches, school bus drivers, guidance counselors and all other school personnel to engage in sexual relationships with students in their care, as long as they have turned 16. One of the reasons we continue to be one of only two states in New England that fails to protect its minors from predatory adults is that no one in the Democratic Women’s Caucus has had a word to say about the utter inadequacy of our state’s consent law.
A fundamental principal of #metoo is the danger of a power imbalance when it comes to physical and sexual relationships. Well, I don’t know about you folks but I am hard pressed to think of a more quintessential example of a power imbalance than that of student and teacher or player and coach. It is precisely the reason that so many states have a qualifier in their consent law that explicitly states that people in positions of authority are not allowed, by law, to engage in sexual activity with those in their care until they are 18 or older.
The Rhode Island law resembles the Connecticut law in that 16 is our age of consent but that is where the similarities end. We have no language at all to protect minors from the adults who hold positions of authority over them. We are one of only two states—the other is Massachusetts—who lack that very important second clause.
One legislator did respond to my request for action on this in November of 2017—it was not a female lawmaker. It was my representative, Alex Marszalkowski. He got back to me within hours of my email and worked with attorneys to draft a bill that was ultimately submitted in May of this year. It was House Bill 7335. I wrote a letter to all members of the judiciary committee in support of the bill —one member, Jason Knight of Providence, responded to the email. The bill never got off the ground but I am grateful to Representative Marszalkowski for putting in the time and remain confident that he will try again this year to get it passed. He said he would and so far, his word on this has been good. I should also add that the chair of the Judiciary at the time was Representative Cale Keable who currently finds himself embroiled in his own #metoo trouble after allegations by Representative Katharine Kazarian of repeated sexual harassment became public last month.
I’ve repeatedly tried to get the attention of women in the General Assembly as well as my own state senator, Ryan Pearson, but have had zero success. Strange, isn’t it? One would think that the Democratic Women’s Caucus, full of champions for equality, victims’ rights and protections against sexual harassment and abuse would be first in line to protest and fix this law but alas, they are more interested in laws that protect themselves. In contrast, I—and most sane people—are a bit more concerned with students being preyed upon by teachers—and it being legal—than with sexual harassment at the statehouse that is already against federal law. That’s right—unlike Rhode Island students, the women at the statehouse are at least already protected by law. Don’t like the Speaker of the House’s handling of sexual harassment allegations? Fine. Want to change state law? Have at it. I’ll support you. But to make your disdain for the speaker’s failure to adequately protect yourselves the top priority seems to overlook the fact that you serve the public and our biggest problems and fears do not fit at all neatly in the Democratic Women’s Caucus version of what’s most important post election.
Sexual harassment curriculum in schools? Hmmm. How about you first make it a crime for the teacher to have sex with the sophomores, juniors, and seniors he or she is teaching about sexual harassment, for the love of God. I mean, I for one would like to know that my legislators do not condone teachers and coaches having sex with sophomores the day after their Sweet 16. Sadly, however, I have no choice but to assume that they—other than Representative Marszalkowski— think it’s just fine if the soccer coach takes off with his best mid-fielder on her sweet 16 or if the school counselor helping a 16-year-old boy navigate his parents’ divorce decides to seduce him in her Subaru in the dark and deserted parking lot of Del’s Lemonade in December.
Neither of these abuses of power—no matter how sexual in nature—are crimes in our state. And that incomprehensible fact is not only abhorrent, it is an utter dereliction of duty on the part of every single lawmaker in this state, but especially those who peddle in #metoo hashtags and protests about sexual assault.
It’s time that a new hashtag—#ThemToo—drive the conversation on Smith Hill. But that can only happen if the loudest voices for victims actually mean what they say.
So ladies, what say you?
This piece was updated today, 11/16 at 7:28 am, to include the fact that Cale Keable was the Chair of the Judiciary at the time that HB 7335 was heard. I didn’t realize that until I went back and looked at the letter I sent to the judiciary last year.
For the convenience of all, below are screenshots of House Bill 7335 from the last legislative session—additional sponsors are listed as is the exact text of the bill that never saw the light of day.