Educator sex abuse bill: ‘I hope it makes it to the finish line this session’

Educator sex abuse bill: ‘I hope it makes it to the finish line this session’

BOSTON — With three weeks left in the legislative session, a state senator and advocates on Tuesday made their case to a room of legislative staffers that their bosses — state senators and representatives — are far behind many other states in enacting child sexual abuse prevention bills to better protect students.

These bills would reform the statute of limitations; require more robust training and policies by schools; protect schools from civil liability for sharing information with employers about an employee’s misconduct; and criminalize staff sexual misconduct, regardless of the age of the student.

The age of consent in Massachusetts is 16, and the state lacks a statute criminalizing sexual misconduct by school staff with students 16 or older — an age most high schoolers turn during their sophomore year.

“I hear from many parents across the state whose kids were 16,” said state Sen. Joan Lovely, of Salem, who shared her personal experience with sexual abuse as a child. “It’s lifelong harm. I want to prevent that. This is preventable.”

Her bill, now before the Judiciary Committee, ​​proposes a charge of indecent assault and battery and imprisonment for those found guilty of engaging in a relationship with a student under 18 years old. It would effectively change the age of consent when it involves a student and school staff.

Lovely said the bill would have to be sent to another committee after the Judiciary Committee, such as the Ways and Means Committee, before it can be brought to the floor for a vote. 

Child advocates say school staff use the age of consent as a loophole to avoid charges after engaging in sexual relationships with students. They express frustration at the lack of legal protections. 

Retired police chief Steven Wojnar, who spoke at the briefing, lamented how state law challenged or precluded law enforcement from pursuing criminal cases when the child was of consenting age. 

Retired police chief Steven Wojnar advocates for legislation that would criminalize educator sexual misconduct during a briefing at the Massachusetts State House. Credit: Anastasia E. Lennon / The New Bedford Light

He noted the 2020 police reform law included a provision that a law enforcement officer who has sex with someone in their custody can be charged with rape, regardless of the person’s age.

“The Legislature rightfully sought to include these relationships as criminal,” he said. “So why should this proposed law be different? Legislators are in a position where they can close this loophole. Unfortunately, I’m here again, almost 20 years later now, speaking to people who have the ability to make this change.”

Last month, The Light reported on allegations of sexual misconduct by a school employee with a student, Jacob Pothier, at the Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School. Pothier died in January in a car crash, just weeks after turning 18. The former employee, the other person in the vehicle, survived.

Pothier’s family alleges a sexual and inappropriate relationship started when Pothier was 16 years old and a freshman at the school, and they have initiated a potential civil action against the district.  

Four of Lovely’s bills sit before two committees: the joint Judiciary Committee, on which two South Coast legislators serve; and the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Legislators have until July 31 to take action, or let the bills die again. 

Lovely said she is working on all of her bills, but is actively pushing her statute of limitations legislation to the floor for a vote by the month’s end. 

Several legislators support bill

State Sen. Michael J. Rodrigues, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, in an email, said Lovely’s bills are being analyzed by committee staff: “As with all bills that come before the Committee, the Senate will carefully review the legislation.” 

Other members of the committee did not respond to a request for comment. 

Kathryn Robb, left, state Sen. Joan Lovely, and retired police chief Steven Wojnar advocate for child sexual abuse prevention legislation during a briefing at the Massachusetts State House. Credit: Anastasia E. Lennon / The New Bedford Light

The chairs of the Judiciary Committee, as well as several members, did not respond to  requests for comment. A majority of legislators who did respond supported Lovely’s legislation.

“I absolutely support getting rid of this loophole, and the legislature should do it as soon as possible,” said Rep. Chris Hendricks of New Bedford, a member of the Judiciary Committee, in an email. “I would also, frankly, support raising the age of consent … other states already have similar laws in place and Massachusetts shouldn’t lag on this issue.”

“Also, passing this or similar legislation would be a perfect way to honor Jacob’s memory,” Hendricks said. “I hope it makes it to the finish line this session.”

State Sen. Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth, a member of the Judiciary Committee, also expressed support. 

“I believe that it is our duty to guarantee that students in Massachusetts are kept safe while in the care of educators and school personnel by taking steps through legislation to prevent exploitation and abuse,” he said in a statement.

“The tragic case regarding the New Bedford student who was taken advantage of by a figure in his life who should’ve been there to keep him safe, highlights the urgent need for legislative action to prevent such abuses from continuing in the future,” O’Connor continued. “It is unacceptable that current laws do not adequately protect students from predatory behavior by school staff, and in this case among others, when the student may be legally considered capable of consenting due to their age.”

O’Connor said he was “optimistic” the bills would advance, but noted he would be working with colleagues to address “any concerns regarding the language” in the bills to “ensure their successful enactment.”

Sen. John Velis of Westfield, a member of the Judiciary Committee, also supports the legislation.

“It’s truly upsetting, and frustrating, to see reports of teachers or school employees taking advantage of students without any legal consequences,” said Velis in a statement. “This type of behavior, sexual relationships between a teacher and a student, simply doesn’t belong in a school environment and is really contrary to everything that should be going on in our school systems.”

“Other states have taken action on this issue and I do support closing this loophole to help prevent sexual misconduct in our schools, especially when there can be such a real power dynamic between teachers and students,” he continued.

Rep. Markey critical of bill

Rep. Christopher Markey, a member of the Judiciary Committee and Hendricks’ peer on the South Coast, was critical of Lovely’s bill to criminalize school staff relationships with 16- and 17-year-old students, stating it would be inconsistent with the state’s age of consent. 

“I think Sen. Lovely was for the ROE Act, which allowed for 16-year-olds to have abortions without parental consent, so I don’t know if this bill is actually consistent with all of the other laws that are in existence,” Markey said. “So I think the move is to provide, at least in Massachusetts, people the ability to consent to their sexual behavior at 16 years old.”

“The reason we have the statutory rape charge and age of consent … is because there is a belief in society that 16 year olds can make those decisions. And that’s what the law has been for a long time,” he said.

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Advocates and researchers argue that consent is not possible with relationships involving students and school staff, who are in a position of authority and influence. 

“Teachers and school staff are assumed to have power over students, no matter what age, and therefore the ability of the relatively powerless student to give consent is assumed to be impaired in such relationships,” wrote researchers in 2020. “It is perhaps for this reason and the position of authority that the employee holds that some states vary from the norm of 16 years as the age of consent and/or regard consent as an irrelevant point.”

Markey did, however, express support for one of Lovely’s other proposed bills, which would make school hiring and screening practices more robust.

He said he has not “heard a lot of discussion” about Lovely’s legislation among the Judiciary Committee: “It’s not something that is high on the priority list.”

Another South Coast representative, Antonio Cabral, said he supports Lovely’s legislation to protect children from sexual abuse, but noted the age of consent is something the Legislature needs to figure out. 

“Someone should face charges if it is between a school employee and the child under a certain age, be it age 19, 18,” Cabral said. “I think we have to try to get to a place where everybody feels what’s the right age, and I don’t think we seem to be there yet.”

“When it involves authority, employees of the school system or institutions that interact with children that are underage, I think we certainly need to look at what age should be considered the age of consent,” he said. 

He also said other laws are already in place that should be followed, such as the requirement that teachers and school staff, as mandated reporters, report possible abuse to the proper authorities. 

South Coast state Sen. Mark Montigny did not provide a comment. A spokesperson for his office, Audra Riding, in an email said the senator “strongly supports this legislation and has been in contact with Jacob’s family.” 

“He has been pushing for passage of these particular bills and is frustrated with the lack of action on important legislation such as this. It is simply inexplicable that both of these bills have been placed in a Judiciary Committee extension order through July 31st, ensuring it cannot be considered by the Senate prior to [the] end of formal legislative sessions,” Riding wrote. 

Kathryn Robb, an attorney and director of the Children’s Justice Campaign who spoke during the briefing, has worked with legislators in several states to reform or pass laws.

“It’s a mystery to me why lawmakers have not made the simplest change to protect kids from this bizarre loophole,” she said of Massachusetts. “There’s no good argument on the other side.” 

Email Anastasia E. Lennon at [email protected].

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