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.
While 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 this week, I stumbled upon the very troubling fact that sex acts with 14 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 by the US government was in 2004, before the explosion of cell phones and social media. The Washington Post reports 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.
We can do this.