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.
But there is reason to be optimistic that the tide may finally be changing at the statehouse. Investigative reporter Jim Hummel recently spoke to the majority and minority leaders from both chambers on his show Lively Experiment and he asked them about the issue. Not only did House Majority leader Joe Shekarchi remind viewers that House Bill 5817 —that would have classified sexual relationships between teachers and students as felony sexual assault—passed the house last year, but he seemed committed to supporting it again. He also acknowledged that sexual abuse by adults in schools “has been a problem.” House minority leader Blake Filippi was unequivocal in his opinion when he said point blank, “there should be criminal penalties where a teacher takes advantage of a child.”
The house did its job last year on this issue but because no one sponsored a companion bill in the senate, the bill died.
Well, hallelujah because Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey indicated to Jim Hummel that he expected to see a bill in the senate this session and he was optimistic about passage.
We want to make sure that the students are protected and that the parents feel comfortable that there are laws in place to protect their children. —Senate Majority Leader, Michael McCaffrey
Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere was very wishy- washy in his comments but Hummel pressed him to acknowledge that the sexual assault statutes do not include high school teachers having “consensual” sexual relations with the students in their class. I was disappointed and a bit offended by his overly diplomatic tone. We are talking about sexual abuse within a custodial relationship, the quintessential example of an imbalance of power. Isn’t that what the #metoo movement was all about?
Despite my natural temptation to re-litigate the past and berate the legislature, I have instead decided to have hope that 2020 is the year we get this done. Arrest records are crucial in protecting our students because they are public—without a law that allows law enforcement to make an arrest, all that exists are sealed personnel records that no parent or future employer in another district or state can see. And the victimization continues.
One final thought: As for the absurd argument from the unions that teachers and school employees should not be held to any standard different than “insurance agents” or “store managers”, it is a total non-starter that insults every single parent and taxpayer in the state. Not only does it 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 for with our tax dollars—we have a stake in potential inappropriate and predatory behavior. It’s bad enough that we, the 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. That must change.