Yesterday at a hearing for a bill (HB 5817) that would make sex between school employees and students a crime—even after they’ve turned 16, the legal age of consent in Rhode Island—both teachers’ unions made their objections known. NEA RI didn’t have anyone testify but Pat Crowley did sign in to the hearing and note his opposition to the bill. I suspect the NEA also submitted written testimony. James Parisi of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) did testify—in fact, we sat beside one another, each offering our very different opinions on the bill.
As it currently stands, Rhode Island is one of a few states where it is perfectly legal for teachers and other school employees to have sexual relations with their students once they turn 16. It’s literally a dirty little secret—almost no one seems to be aware of this loophole in the law and yet it leaves high school students without any protection from those who would sexually abuse them after their 16th birthday. We are also a state who, after a year long investigation by USA Today, received a grade of D for how well we track and share information about teachers who are also alleged abusers.
Parisi expressed that the UFT’s opposition to the bill lies mostly in the fact that it singles out school employees. He wonders why “store managers” aren’t included? Last time I checked, children aren’t, by law, in the custodial care of store managers from kindergarten through 12th grade. He wondered why clergy and the legislature weren’t also included in the bill but again, unless their role as clergy and legislators includes custodial responsibilities of children, his examples aren’t logical in this context. If the member of the clergy also teaches at a school, then yes. If the legislator is also a high school basketball coach, then yes.
In all honesty, to a small extent, his point is well taken. There is no reason why the protection of children shouldn’t extend to all adults who are in positions of authority or acting “in “loco parentis” when they are with minors. Plenty of states have that broader language written into their consent laws. But to equate a store manager with an 11th grade teacher or school bus driver is patently absurd and insulting to parents who think this bill is a long over due slam dunk.
Parisi also claims that this isn’t really a problem here and that the loss of one’s current job and state teaching license is punishment enough. I’m sorry, what? Just because he has somehow decided this isn’t an issue doesn’t mean that we should continue to be a state where sex between teachers and students is legal. And Parisi, and every other person employed by a teachers’ union, are well versed in the very grim reality that sexual predators move from district to district and state to state—termination and loss of licensure are not sufficient deterrents and certainly do not protect children. Sure—it may help us get rid of abusers but I hope we aren’t ok with sending people who harm our students off to other states where they can hurt the children there. In a 2018 report, NPR’s Erin Logan says this:
“That cycle — abuse, dismissal, rehire and abuse again — is one that experts and researchers say is far too common across the nation. It has long been known as “passing the trash,” and despite years of efforts to make policies to keep it from happening, no one really knows how often it does.”
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel because plenty of states have language that protects students, under the law and if we can broaden it even more in the future, then great. But we currently have a bill on the table that at least does the job of addressing the issue in our schools.
Here are a few examples of how other states do it so much better than we do by including a clause about people in positions of authority:
I personally think I like the Michigan law best since it’s protects students beyond the age of 18 and until they’ve graduated.
The video of our testimony in front of the house judiciary committee begins here at 1:22:13 —unfortunately, most members of the committee were gone by the time Mr. Parisi and I testified. I assume they are members of other committees that had hearings happening at the same time, which was the case for my representative, Alex Marszalkowski, who sponsored the bill I was there to support. It’s too bad that attendance was so sparse because I would have enjoyed the opportunity to speak about this with more than just the handful of legislators who were left in the room. I am confident that most, if not all, would have been surprised to learn that it is perfectly legal for teachers and school employees to have sex with students once they’ve turned 16. Hopefully, they will get up to speed, watch the testimony, and ask their constituents how they feel about being one of only a few states that appears to believe that sex between students and teachers should not be a crime.
Note: In my testimony, I make reference to public schools and public employees—mostly in the context of union pushback and compulsory education laws—but in hindsight I realize that it might have sounded like I was implying that the law would only apply to public school employees. That is NOT the case. It would cover all school employees (and vendors and volunteers) in all kinds of schools.
Here is the one year investigation by USA Today that I reference in my testimony. The graphic above showing how poorly we track disciplinary actions against teachers can be found at the USA Today link as well.