My apologies if the title above makes you gasp but at least the news is good that Speaker Mattiello’s loss and the subsequent ascendancy of Joe Shekarchi bodes well for the chances of finally making it a crime for teachers to have sexual relationships with their students. He is firmly on the record in support of making it happen and unlike Mattiello, he does not weaken his words on the subject with ridiculous qualifiers.
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 minors in their care. While we watch teachers, coaches, substitutes and bus drivers across the country carted off in handcuffs for engaging in “consensual” sex acts with students, those stories never emanate from Rhode Island and the reason is simple—it is not a crime here.
The RI Attorney General’s office has confirmed that both statements below are true:
RI state law allows 14 year old students “to consent” to being sexually touched by the adults in their school.
RI state law allows 16 year old students “to consent” to being sexually penetrated by the adults in their school.
From a piece I wrote in January of this year:
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.”
Shekarchi’s words will be much more powerful if he continues to say them after he is sworn in as Speaker of the House. Even though a bill did pass the house last year, there was no companion bill on the Senate side. A Speaker Shekarchi can make sure that does not happen again.
The current senate majority leader, Michael McCaffrey, is also on record in support of changing the law. Curiously, minority leader Dennis Algiere has been the weak link in the leadership chain on this issue even though he has been forced to acknowledge (thank you Jim Hummel!) that our current the sexual assault statutes do not include high school teachers having “consensual” sexual relations with the students in their class. Unless he wants to go on the record to say he is ok with that, he must support a change to the law (although if I had my druthers, Jessica de la Cruz would take his place as minority leader.)
This needed change to protect students is budget neutral—which makes the fact that it hasn’t been a slam dunk even more appalling. There is a custodial relationship between teacher and student, and we all 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 open the doors of transparency around educator sexual abuse is to classify the behavior as criminal.
Before COVID-19, I was optimistic that we would pass laws to make this predation a crime. I am now hopeful that with Shekarchi at the helm and a bit of holding their feet to the fire, it will happen in 2021.