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    Lawmakers want to make it easier to punish educators who sexually abuse students

    Massachusetts Senator Joan B. Lovely said she plans to introduce a comprehensive bill next month that will include a long list of changes.
    Massachusetts Senator Joan Lovely said she will introduce a bill to make it easier to punish educators who sexually abuse students.

    State lawmakers and advocates in every New England state are pursuing legislation to make it easier to punish educators who sexually abuse students — and harder for them to get new jobs elsewhere working with children.

    Massachusetts Senator Joan B. Lovely, Democrat of Salem, said she plans to introduce a comprehensive bill next month that will include a long list of changes, including making it illegal for high school teachers to have sex with their students, strengthening requirements to report abuse, and eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for cases involving sexual violations of children.

    “We have to take care of our kids,” said Lovely, who said that she herself was a victim of sexual abuse at a young age.

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    Her efforts and those of colleagues in other states come after a Globe Spotlight Team report found more than 110 private schools in New England have faced allegations of sexual misconduct over the past 25 years. In more than two dozen cases, the Globe found educators moved to new schools after they were fired for misconduct, sometimes with glowing recommendations from their old employers.

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    Child welfare advocates, attorneys, and law enforcement officials say outdated statutes across the region make it too easy for abusive educators to avoid prosecution and continue working with children. And private schools are often exempt from many of the safeguards that do exist, such as requirements that teachers be licensed.

    “There are major gaps in the current laws across all six New England states,” said Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, which is working with Lovely to help revamp the laws in Massachusetts. “This should be a no-brainer. We are way past the time when we should have passed this kind of reform.”

    Such efforts are taking shape across the region.

    In Connecticut, two state lawmakers said they want to extend what some call the “passing the trash” law to cover private schools. The law, approved in June, bars public schools from signing confidentiality agreements that cover up allegations of sexual misconduct. It also requires schools to share information when teachers accused of misconduct apply for new jobs. But the provisions do not apply to private schools.

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    “I think private schools should live up to the same standard as public schools,” said Senator Cathy Osten, Democrat of Sprague. Representative William Tong, Democrat of Stamford, said he also supports changing the law to cover private schools.

    A spokeswoman indicated Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy would also support extending some provisions of the law to private schools.

    “Our children’s safety and well-being is one of our most paramount responsibilities,” said Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for Malloy.

    In Maine, state Senator Scott Cyrway said he plans to introduce a bill soon that would prohibit schools from signing confidentiality agreements to resolve allegations of sexual abuse.

    “This information should be able to be put out to other schools,’’ said Cyrway, a Republican from the Waterville area and a retired deputy sheriff. “Most people who are sexual predators have a disease, and it’s very difficult to treat, so they tend to do it over again.’’

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    And in Vermont, Senator Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his committee plans to study proposals to reform state laws next year, potentially including a ban on confidentiality agreements, an end of the statute of limitations on sexual abuse of children, and changes to ensure background checks are conducted on both private and public school employees.

    In New Hampshire, officials at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said they hope to work with lawmakers to eliminate the criminal statute of limitations on sex crimes. Statutes of limitations vary widely from state to state, but a growing number are doing away entirely with the deadlines for rape and some other sex crimes, especially those involving children, where it can often take victims years to come forward.

    Finally, in Rhode Island, the head of Day One, a nonprofit focused on sexual assault issues, said the group plans to collaborate with lawmakers to make a number of changes, including requiring schools to share allegations of employee misconduct with one another and barring confidentiality agreements that cover up abuse.

    “There is a lot to be done,” said Peg Langhammer, executive director of Day One, “and we want to provide real solutions.”

    Many schools are already taking action on their own in New England and beyond. The Association of Boarding Schools and the National Association of Independent Schools appointed a joint task force to study the sexual misconduct issue nationally. And more than two dozen schools in New England have launched investigations of sexual misconduct this year.

    Most recently, the Rivers School in Weston said in a letter this month to the school community that it fired a high school teacher after he acknowledged having an “inappropriately close relationship” with a student that began shortly after she graduated in June. The school said it had not found evidence the teacher was involved with other students but was continuing to investigate.

    Lovely said she’s optimistic the Massachusetts Legislature will change the law in the next session to help deter teachers from abusing students and to make it harder for schools to hide the incidents.

    Her bill would make it illegal for high school educators to have sex with students who are 19 years old or younger. Currently, it is legal for educators to have intercourse with students who are at least 16, so long as the student consents.

    The proposal would also bar both private and public schools from signing confidential settlements that require victims and others to keep allegations of sexual misconduct secret, and it would require schools to share information on employees accused of abuse with other schools when employees apply for new jobs.

    Lovely’s bill would also eliminate the criminal statute of limitations on sexual abuse involving children, giving prosecutors the option of pursuing charges in cases that happened many years ago. Currently, prosecutors are legally barred from filing criminal charges in Massachusetts after 27 years, unless there is independent corroborating evidence, such as video or DNA.

    In addition, Lovely said the bill would strengthen requirements to report abuses of children under 18 to the state Department of Children and Families. For instance, the bill would expand the list of professionals who must report child abuse to include coaches and increase the maximum fines for institutions that flout the law to $100,000.

    A spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker said he was not ready to propose or comment on any specific measure to deter sexual misconduct in schools.

    “The administration believes that any teachers or educators who abuse their position to engage in inappropriate behavior with students should be held fully accountable,” spokesman Billy Pitman said.

    Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.