“While one may disagree whether this type of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ conduct is appropriate — it should not be a felony.”
Two Rhode Island teachers’ unions and the American Civil Liberties Union are opposing a bill that would criminalize sex between school employees and students younger than 18, The Providence Journal reported earlier this month.
The bill, sponsored by State Rep. Alex Marszalkowski, would make any school employee that has sex with a student between the ages of 14 and 18 guilty of third-degree sexual assault. School employees covered by the bill include bus drivers, vendors and school volunteers with supervisory authority.
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But James Parisi, a lobbyist for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, said his union opposes the legislation because it singles out teachers while ignoring other professions where adults also supervise teenagers.
“You should include all the adults who have employment or other types of authority over 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds,” Parisi said. “For example, why is a legislator having sexual relations with a page not included in the bill? What about store managers, athletic coaches, clergy and volunteers in community organizations?”
Also opposing the bill was the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who testified that “singling out teachers, school bus drivers, etc., in this way is arbitrary and capricious.”
According to the report, the ACLU also had concerns about targeting school volunteers, who could be closer in age to a student and be in violation of the law under the legislation.
“While one may disagree whether this type of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ conduct is appropriate — it should not be a felony,” the ACLU said.
Another teachers’ union, the National Education Association Rhode Island, opposed the bill as well. Robert Walsh, executive director of the union, called the proposal, “ridiculous.”
“It is patently ridiculous for anyone to imply that our organization, or any individual teacher, would condone any inappropriate relationship between a teacher and his or her students,” Walsh said. “We do not believe that this obvious standard needs legislation to back it up, and agree with the ACLU’s objections to several other technical flaws in the actual proposed legislation.”
Erika Sanzi, an education advocate and blogger, asked her representative to submit the bill after a previous bill was also rejected. The previous bill would have made it a crime for anyone with custodial responsibility to have sex with a student. Critics argued the language in that bill was overly broad.
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Marszalkowski narrowed the language in the new bill, hoping to garner increased support.
“What we’re asking is that we protect students from all people who work with them in school,” Sanzi testified to the House Judiciary Committee regarding the bill.
“The deterrent is, yes, they can be fired, but that means they can jump to anywhere else in the country and get another job preying on kids,” Sanzi continued.
Marszalkowski said the intent of the bill wasn’t to single out teachers, but noted that it’s aimed at school employees because that’s one place children are required to attend by law.
“I welcome any criticism,” Marszalkowski said. “If there is a way to amend it so it’s more broadly defined but passes constitutional muster, I’m willing to do it.”
The debate over the Rhode Island legislation comes amid an alarmingly number of cases in which teachers engage in inappropriate sexual relationships with students.
Last month, the estate of a Nevada student who killed himself after being sexually abused by a female teacher filed a lawsuit against the school district. In another case, former New Smyrna Beach Middle School teacher Stephanie Peterson left one student so traumatized by sexual abuse that he was scared to receive tutoring services.
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