In December 2010, a Michigan high school teacher gave his student a birthday present. The day after she turned 18, he took her to a hotel, and had sex with her. The news got out, and the police investigated. But there was no charge to throw at the 28-year-old man. Their tryst was perfectly legal.
As allegations of sexual misconduct by teachers fill the news almost daily, more states are wrestling with whether to criminalize teacher-student affairs, even if the student is 18 years old. Last week, the Michigan state senate passed a bill that would bar students of any age from having sex with their teachers, amending a previous law that let them do what they wanted once they reached 18.
Most states permit 16-year-olds to have sex with anyone their age or older, and in some states, teachers are included. In almost every state, an 18-year-old can consent to sex with an instructor. But with reports that more than 4.5 million students are victims of unwanted sexual misconduct by school employees, lawmakers want to get tough -- and in at least one case, teachers are balking.
Relations Between 'Consenting Adults'
In a 2006 case, the country's largest teachers union advised against handing a 33-year-old Washington choir teacher a felony for his alleged affair with an 18-year-old student. (He'd been charged with first-degree sexual misconduct with a minor.)
Sleeping with a student was clearly against the teacher's code of conduct, explained a spokesman for the Washington Education Association. And a teacher could rightfully lose his or her job and license. But in terms of the law, "Eighteen-year-olds aren't kids," he said. "... And should consenting adults be subject to criminal charges?"
The case went to the state Supreme Court, which decided that it was illegal for a teacher to have sex with a student, no matter his or her age. The teacher pleaded guilty to coercion and surrendered his license. But the debate over these laws continues to intensify.
The Move To Criminalize
Illinois may have been the first state to criminalize teacher-student affairs, making it a felony in 1988 for teachers to have sex with students of any age. The same law applies in Connecticut and North Carolina.
But such laws have been controversial. In 2003, Texas criminalized all sexual relationships between students and teachers, but after the law's author said that he intended it only for students 17 or younger, a court refused to indict a teacher who had sex with her 18-year-old student.
Many states, like Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Kansas and Maryland, have upped their age of consent to 17 or 18 when a teacher is involved. But that means a 17- or 18-year-old in these states can consent to sex with a teacher, a prospect many find repellent.
Gross, But Not Illegal
Earlier this year, James Hooker, a 41-year-old California high school teacher, left his wife. The community then watched in horror, as Hooker packed his bags and moved in with his 18-year-old student, Jordan Powers, who was just a grade above one of his own children. Hooker was placed on administrative leave with pay, and then resigned at the end of February. Police are still investigating whether any sexual conduct occurred before the girl's 18th birthday. But if that didn't happen, then in the eyes of the law Hooker didn't do anything wrong.
In 2009, Georgia high school teacher Christopher King faced 10 to 30 years in jail for his relationship with a 17-year-old student. The judge bypassed the jury to shoot down the charge of sexual assault, saying: "It's gross, it's awful, but it ain't illegal."
Should Seduction Be Criminalized
Some prosecutors in Michigan claimed it was difficult to bring a teacher to court, if he or she had waited until a student turned 18 to engage in sexual conduct. Alaska raised its age of consent in a school setting from 16 to 18, after it emerged that one high school teacher purportedly picked out young, vulnerable freshmen and sophomores, waited until they turned 16, and then seduced them -- legally.
But some think lawmakers should stay out of the sex lives of 18-year-old adults. And many doubt that making it a felony for teachers to bed their 18-year-old students is a necessary or appropriate way to protect children from abuse. State Sen. Rebekah Warren, who dissented in the Michigan vote last week, said that since the age of consent in the state is 16, "We should not get involved with adults making adult decisions."
"I think the stigma of the teacher-student relationship just makes it messy, makes it really hard for people to get through to the point that we really do like each other," Hooker told ABC about his student-turned-live-in-girlfriend. "We really do want to have a future together."
"He's my best friend," Powers chimed in.
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