OLYMPIA — No one in the capitol was arguing Wednesday that it isn’t wrong for a teacher to have sex with a student — even one who’s legally an adult.
Instead, the issue being debated by lawmakers, lawyers and school officials is whether a sexual relationship between a public school employee and a student 18 or older should be a crime.
Rep. Larry Haler and Sen. Jerome Delvin, both Richland Republicans, introduced bills saying that courts should be allowed to charge school employees who have sex with students up to age 21 with the felony of sexual misconduct with a minor. Their bills received public hearings Wednesday in the House and Senate committees.
Haler and Delvin argued that the issue shouldn’t be a student’s age, but the power that a teacher or other public school employee can wield over a student.
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“As taxpayers and parents, we expect that when our kids go to school, they’re safe,” Haler said. “To parse this by age ignores that this is a supervisor-inferior relationship.”
Haler and Delvin introduced their bills after being approached by Richland School District officials after a sexual misconduct charge had to be dismissed in August against a former music teacher Allan Eve because the girl was 18.
Judge Dennis Yule ruled that current law only applies to students who are 16 or 17.
But courts in other parts of the state have decided differently, leaving the state of the law and just what the Legislature meant by “minor” in a muddle.
Haler and Delvin think it makes sense to criminalize sexual relationships with all students over 16 because otherwise sexual predators working in public schools can groom students while they’re underage, waiting to consummate the relationship when the student turns 18.But the manipulation and abuse of power is the same whether the student is 17 or 18, they said.
“It makes no sense to write a law that leaves any student unprotected,” Delvin said. “My bill protects all students from predatory teachers — regardless of age — and that’s what their parents expect us to do.”
Many students between 18 and 21 are those with developmental disabilities. Heather Cleary, a Richland School District board member, said they may be more vulnerable to sexual abuse than 16- and 17-year-olds.
“Most of our students in school to age 21 are the most fragile students we serve and have the greatest need for protection by the law,” Cleary said.
Rebecca Hissam, a parent with a developmentally disabled child in the Richland School District, told legislators she supports the proposed law.
She also read a letter from the 18-year-old girl who allegedly had a relationship with Eve. The girl was not identified, but said in the letter she now sees the relationship as sexual abuse and has had nightmares and considered suicide because of it.
“It can’t have been my fault,” she wrote. “I was just a kid who loved band and loved school. I may have been 18, but I was not an adult. I was an innocent kid in the school system.”
Eve, 59, appeared in court Wednesday in Kennewick and agreed to a one-month delay of his trial to March 23.
Though one charge was dropped, he still is charged in connection with leaving several anonymous typed notes in a different girl’s locker, at least one with sexual overtones, and with making another girl feel uncomfortable by telling her she was pretty and massaging her hand.
Richard Jansons, president of the Richland School Board, said teachers who have sex with students should go to jail.
“The abuse here and the betrayal and the deceit shouldn’t go unpunished,” Jansons said.
The lone voice of dissent Wednesday came from Wade Samuelson, a lawyer speaking on behalf of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Samuelson agreed that there should be consequences for teachers who have sex with students, but that the Legislature should leave it up to school districts to fire the teachers and the state to revoke their licenses rather than making a relationship between two consenting adults a crime.
“At age 18, a person can vote, enter into a contract, sue and be sued, consent to any kind of surgery and run for public office,” Samuelson said. “Let the existing criminal law punish the relationship between teachers and minor students (under 18), but allow the regulatory process to handle the relationship between teachers and adult students.”
Samuelson, who has a developmentally disabled child, said the law also has existing protections for students with disabilities.
“By law, a developmentally disabled child is not capable of consent,” he said. “We’re talking about normal, regular adult people who have to make their choices in life. It is wrong, but it shouldn’t be criminalized.”
No vote has been taken on the bills, which have to pass the House and Senate and be signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire before becoming law.