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Arizona Teachers To Report Youths' Sexual Activity

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Several teachers in Mesa, Ariz., have posted signs in their classrooms with this message to students: "Don't tell me. I don't want to know."

The warning is meant to deter students in the state's largest school district from asking teachers for advice on sexual matters--whether it be pregnancy, communicable diseases, or even love.

Teachers say they would rather not delve into such problems because, under the Mesa police department's interpretation of a newly revised state child-abuse statute, school personnel must report to the police all suspected sexual activity between minors.

Parents and teachers have denounced the interpretation as overly strict, saying it invades students' privacy rights.

School officials agree, but say they must obey orders from the Mesa police, who warn that educators will face criminal charges if they do not report all suspected sexual activity involving students.

Last week, a group of parents and students staged a protest in front of the school district's headquarters. The rally was organized by Elizabeth Helinski, a 16-year-old student at Mountain View High School who contends that students are afraid to seek advice from their counselors for fear of instigating a police investigation.

Ms. Helinski, the district's superintendent, and the local teachers' union have asked Gov. Rose Mofford to consider rewording the statute in a special session of the legislature that began Nov. 21. Thus far, the issue remains off the agenda.

Fred W. Skoglund, the district's assistant superintendent for secondary education, said last week that, in the meantime, school personnel will have no choice but to follow the local interpretation of the law. "Either we comply or we face criminal charges," he said.

'Sex Police'

"This interpretation places teachers in a 'sex police' role that goes far beyond what is necessary in reporting child abuse," argued Roger F. Kruse, executive director of the Mesa Education Association. "The historic confidence and trust between teachers and students is being eroded."

Arizona has long had laws against child abuse and molestation, but revisions that took effect Sept. 15 require that all suspected abuse be reported to the police or child-protective services.

School personnel--and other child-care professionals--found guilty of failing to report suspected abuse face a sentence of six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both.

The new law states that "any person who engages in sexual conduct with a minor under 18 years old is involved in a felony," according to Sgt. Chuck A. Kennedy, a spokesman for the Mesa police.

While guidelines from the county attorney allow police to bypass criminal charges in cases of a consensual sexual relationship between minors, each case must still be investigated, and parents must be contacted, Sergeant Kennedy said.

Moreover, police are not asking teachers to report teenagers caught just "necking," he said.

He acknowledged that the wording of the law is "a problem," but, he said, "it's not up to us to question it."

The proposal to revise the law has won widespread bipartisan support in the legislature. Backers include the bill's original sponsor.

However, a spokesman for Gov. Mofford said the legislature's "plate was already too full" with the tax issues being debated last week.

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