Texas, N.Y. Consider New Restrictions on Staff-Student Sex

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Lawmakers in Texas and New York are considering proposals to get tougher with school employees who have sex with students.

In Texas, legislation introduced by Rep. Helen Giddings, a Democrat, would no longer allow teachers, coaches, or school staff members to legally engage in consensual sex with students 17 or older.

"This basically closes the loophole," Ms. Giddings said. "It certainly gives students a level of protection that they did not have."

The lawmaker said her bill was prompted by a recent Education Week special report, "A Trust Betrayed," on the sexual abuse of students by school personnel.

The three-part series, published in December, found that such wrongdoing is more widespread than the education community generally acknowledges, that student victims are doubly harmed by shortcomings in schools' response to the problem, and that weak laws and enforcement policies send messages that such abuse is tolerable.

A survey conducted for the series found that in 23 states, consensual sex between a student and school employee is legal if the young person is at least 16 or 17. ("'Zero Tolerance' of Sex Abuse Proves Elusive," Dec. 16, 1998.)

Ms. Giddings' bill would make it a felony for an employee of any public or private school to have intercourse or other sexual contact with a student younger than 18 to whom the employee is not married.

It would also require the state board of education to amend the state's code of ethics for educators to explicitly prohibit such conduct.

Eric B. Hartman, the legislative director for the Texas Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said the 30,000-member union agreed with the legislation's premise.

But he said the union thought a more effective approach would be to beef up the state agency that revokes educators' professional certification.

"They have had a tiny number of investigators and a huge backlog of cases," Mr. Hartman said.

N.Y. Bills Weighed

In New York state, meanwhile, lawmakers are considering a bill that would stiffen criminal penalties for sex between minors and adults who are entrusted with supervising them, including teachers.

The legislation passed the Republican-controlled Senate this year, as it has for each of the past two years. But each time, it has run into problems in the Democratic-dominated Assembly, whose members typically resist tougher criminal penalties and sympathize politically with the teachers' unions.

A spokeswoman for the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers said the union did not support the bill in its current form because it could ensnare innocent adults supervising children.

Elizabeth A. Connelly, the Assembly's speaker pro tem, said she sponsored the bill out of a belief that the state needs "to get really tough" on sexual abuse of children by adults in positions of trust. "The cases are getting more egregious as time goes by," she said.

Ms. Connelly said she hoped to muster enough support for the legislation, but said it might not pass in its present form.

The legislation would toughen penalties for adults in positions of trust, with the harshest sanctions reserved for those who abused children under age 11.

And while it is currently not illegal in New York for adults to have consensual sex with adolescents 17 or older, the bill would outlaw such conduct involving people in positions of trust and youngsters under 18.

Lawmakers in New York are considering other bills affecting staff-student sex, including some to change reporting requirements for school staff members who suspect other employees of abusing students.

Other pending bills would require fingerprinting and criminal-background checks of candidates for school employment.The New York City district is the only one in the state that already requires fingerprint checks.

Vol. 18, Issue 29, Page 17

Published in Print: March 31, 1999, as Texas, N.Y. Consider New Restrictions on Staff-Student Sex
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