PROTECTED BY CRONYS AND SOLs
Across region, outdated Sex Abuse laws have
Statutes of limitations bottle up information about who the perpetrators are and which institutions are covering up the incidents…
BOSTON, MA – Laura and Antonio Siracusa were horrified when they discovered their teenage daughter was in a sexual relationship with her Spanish teacher from Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton seven years ago. The daughter and teacher denied they were a couple, the Siracusas said. But the parents eventually found evidence they couldn’t ignore, including a hotel receipt and graphic photos of the teacher taken with their daughter’s phone.
The Catholic school fired the teacher after administrators saw the photos, according to the Siracusas and their attorney. But the teacher refused to stop seeing the Siracusas’ daughter.
Yet, when the parents contacted a lawyer and police to intervene, they got an ugly surprise: There was nothing authorities could do. In Massachusetts and some other states, it turns out, it’s legal for a teacher to have sex with a high school student, as long as the student is at least 16 and consents.
“It was unfathomable to us,” recalled Laura Siracusa, who told her story to state legislators last year in an unsuccessful effort to persuade them to change the law. “We couldn’t get our arms around the fact that we had no legal options.”
Attorneys, police, and child welfare advocates say the age of consent law in Massachusetts is just one example of how outdated statutes and regulations sometimes enable educators in both public and private schools to exploit students with impunity.
Massachusetts and many other states also impose strict time limits on when victims can seek criminal charges or file lawsuits. Most states, including Massachusetts, allow schools to keep incidents secret by demanding confidentiality agreements as part of settlements with abuse victims. And across the country, school officials are often reluctant to warn their peers about accused teachers for fear that they could be sued.
The problem is that many sexual abuse and privacy laws weren’t written specifically to deal with misconduct by educators, advocates say, and sometimes seem tone-deaf to the unusual power that a teacher has over a student. In addition, private schools are often exempt from many rules that do exist, such as requirements to license educators.
“There are too many loopholes,” said Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation, an advocacy group based in Nevada that is pushing for stronger laws nationwide.
A recent wave of high-profile sex scandals at private schools, including St. George’s School in Rhode Island, has highlighted the limits of child protection laws as well as disagreements about what they require. Rhode Island State Police, for instance, investigated alleged sexual misconduct by 11 former employees and students at St. George’s in the 1970s and 1980s but brought no charges because the incidents were too old or were not clearly illegal under the laws at the time.
Investigators also found the school failed to report many cases of abuse to authorities. But the school faced no penalties either. After the scandal became public, some Rhode Island officials argued state law only required schools to report child abuse by parents and guardians, not school employees. That prompted lawmakers to clarify the law last summer to say that schools must report abuse by anyone.
Allegations of sexual misconduct at schools are widespread. A Spotlight Team investigation this year found at least 110 New England private schools faced allegations that educators committed sexual misconduct in recent decades, affecting more than 300 students.
A national study suggested sexual misconduct is common at public schools as well. But many perpetrators are never prosecuted, even when schools have enough evidence to fire them. And the Globe found more than two dozen cases where private school employees went on to work at other schools after being accused of sexual misconduct.
Advocates say much more needs to be done to overhaul the laws and regulations covering sexual abuse of students, including making it illegal for teachers to have sex with students who have yet to graduate from high school.
Dudley Police Chief Steven J. Wojnar has been pushing to change the age of consent law in Massachusetts for more than a decade — ever since his department investigated a case involving 31-year-old public school teacher having sex with a 16-year-old male student.
In that case, prosecutors were eventually able to charge the teacher, Amber Jennings, with distributing pornography to a minor because she admitted to e-mailing photos of herself in the nude to the student. But Wojnar was surprised to learn during the investigation just how few restrictions exist for teachers having sex with older students in Massachusetts.
In this state, the age of consent for sexual contact without penetration is just 14. That means it’s potentially legal for a teacher to kiss and fondle a student as young as 14, so long as the teenager consents. And teachers can legally have sex with students who are 16 and older.
“It’s ridiculous,” Wojnar said.
Sexual Abuse Allegations Are Widespread
The Globe found at least 110 private schools in all six New England states have faced allegations of sexual misconduct by staff members.
Massachusetts – 54
Connecticut – 29
New Hampshire – 9
Maine – 8
Rhode Island – 7
Vermont – 3