ERIKA SANZI – Protect students now

ERIKA SANZI – Protect students now

Rhode Island is one of very few states where a teacher can legally have sex with their students. I was hopeful that 2019 was going to be the year that our legislature would do the easy and obviously right thing and finally make sexual relationships between teachers and students a crime. I was naively optimistic that they would have no qualms about adding a simple clause to current state law that would prohibit adults with custodial authority to have sexual relationships with the minors in their care.

I was sadly mistaken. When it comes to school safety at the Rhode Island Statehouse, it’s guns or bust, even though sexual predation is far more common than gun violence in schools. School safety has become politicized – guns are on the agenda, sexual abuse is not.

If a student is 14, a teacher in Rhode Island can sexually touch them with their “consent.” That age bumps up to 16 if the relationship involves penetration in any form – most students turn 14 in 8th grade and 16 in 10th grade. Imagine thinking that a student is in a position to “consent” to a sexual relationship with a teacher or counselor or administrator at their school.

Before you slam the paper down and proclaim that this can’t possibly be true, keep in mind that I have spoken with the attorney general’s office and they have confirmed it. And keep in mind that both teachers’ unions went on the record last year in their opposition to the bill that would have criminalized all sexual relationships between teacher and student. The bill would have applied to all school employees. Union leaders thought it was unfair to target school employees and not include “store managers” in the language of the bill – last time I checked, parents are not compelled by law to send their children to spend more than six hours a day over the course of 12 years in the care of a store manager. Their argument is offensive in its stupidity.

The house did pass a bill in the final hours of the legislative session – thank you to my state representative, Alex Marszalkowski – but not a single senator filed a companion bill and alas, the bill died. And so we went into this school year, again, as a state that arrests a teacher buying beer for a student but not for having sex with them.

The last study on educator sexual abuse by the United States Department of Education (2004) revealed that the problem is 100 times bigger than the scandal we saw within the Catholic Church, which makes sense when you consider that virtually all children attend school. Experts on the topic contend that the advent of the smartphone has caused the problem to get exponentially worse.

This is not a call for panic or fear. The percentage of educators who seek to sexually abuse students is small. As with any institution teeming with children, bad and dangerous people inevitably find a way in. We need this law because an arrest is a public record – it allows the public and potential future employers to be aware of potential danger. As it stands now, we as parents and taxpayers, have no right to any information because teachers’ disciplinary records are sealed. This secrecy allows perpetrators to be quietly dismissed only to get hired in a different district or state where they can prey on more students in more schools.

Our legislature needs to fix this now – a change to the law would have no bearing on the state budget and should therefore be addressed immediately.

Erika Sanzi is a former educator and school committee member who writes about education at Project Forever Free and Good School Hunting. Arlene Violet is on vacation.