Providence, RI – Teachers unions and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are opposing legislation that would criminalize sex between school employees and students between the age of 14 and 18.
The age of consent is 16 in Rhode Island, according to the Providence Journal.
Rhode Island House Bill 5817 applies to any school employee, including bus drivers, vendors and school volunteers, who have supervisory authority over students.
Under the new law, those people would be charged with third-degree sexual assault if they engaged in sex with a student between the ages of 14 and 18.
Current state law says the charge of having sex with a child under the age of 14 is first-degree child molestation sexual assault, according to the Providence Journal.
While engaging in sex with a minor child is generally a fireable offense for a teachers in Rhode Island, it is not a crime if the student has reached the age of consent, the New Boston Post reported.
That means that a teacher fired for having sex with a 16-year-old student can simply move elsewhere and get another job teaching, Erika Sanzi, an education advocate and blogger, told the Providence Journal.
“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 said.
But the state’s two teachers’ unions and the ACLU are calling the bill unfair for singling out teachers and school employees.
The Rhode Island Federation of Teachers (RIFT) has objected to the bill because it criminalizes sexual misconduct by teachers and other school employees and doesn’t address all the other career fields that interact with juveniles, the Providence Journal reported.
“You should include all the adults who have employment or other types of authority over 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds,” James Parisi, a lobbyist for RIFT, wrote. “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?”
The bill’s sponsor, Rhode Island Democratic State Representative Alex Marszalkowski, said that only education employees were covered by the bill because children are forced to go to school and should be protected from sexual exploitation while they’re there, the Providence Journal reported.
The Rhode Island ACLU called “singling out teachers, school bus drivers, etc. … arbitrary and capricious” in its written testimony on the bill.
The group also worried that the legislation targeting school volunteers, citing the example of a volunteer coach who could be close in age to their students, according to the Providence Journal.
“While one may disagree whether this type of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ conduct is appropriate... it should not be a felony,” the ACLU wrote.
Marszalkowski said he’s willing to consider an amendment that would broaden who is included under the law, the Providence Journal reported.
“I welcome any criticism,” he 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.”