Editorials

Editorial

Update Mass. laws to break child sexual abuse cycle

Massachusetts Senator Joan B. Lovely, Democrat of Salem
Massachusetts state Senator Joan B. Lovely, Democrat of salem, has proposed important legislation regarding sexual abuse of children by teachers, as well as by others in positions of responsibility in youth organizations.

Massachusetts state Senator Joan B. Lovely was sexually abused as a 6-year-old by a maternal uncle, trauma that ultimately has led her to file comprehensive legislation to protect kids.

Lovely’s bill focuses on schools and youth organizations, places where adults might recognize that child abuse is happening at home or, more seriously, be in a position to target victims for exploitation. As revelations unfold about abuse at a wide range of educational institutions, it’s only sensible to begin reform efforts there. A Globe Spotlight investigation last year found unchecked sexual misconduct in at least 67 New England private schools — including 33 in Massachusetts — with more than 200 victims. Lovely’s bill also targets the gray area of sexual relations between educators and students that strikes most as morally wrong but legally ambiguous. When it comes to the teacher-student relationship, sex should be legally off limits.

The proposed legislation, scheduled for a State House hearing tomorrow, cracks down on teacher-student sexual relations by closing a loophole in existing law and imposing stiffer criminal sanctions for any educator or other school or youth organization worker to engage in sexual relations with any teen 19 or younger who is under their authority and hasn’t yet graduated from high school. While the age of consent in Massachusetts is 16, if the consenting teen is a student and the other person is an adult in a position of authority, the relationship is not equal, rendering the teen’s consent invalid.

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Lovely’s legislation also requires training for all teachers, personnel, independent contractors, and volunteers at all schools — public and independent — as well as youth organizations, on how to prevent, respond, and report child sexual abuse. It also modernizes outdated regulations by expanding the list of mandated reporters of child abuse to include volunteer coaches, professional tutors, and other independent contractors at schools.

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“This bill is unique in the country,” says Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, or MassKids. “More than two dozen states have passed similar legislation mandating child sex abuse education, but none include private schools in the scope.”

Such a law would send a clear message in education circles. “No teacher should ever have any sort of relationship with their student, because we don’t send our children to school to have sex with them; teachers are there to guide them,” said Brenda Demers, whose 16-year-old daughter engaged in sexual relations with her special education teacher in Upton a few years ago. She believes the teacher, then 26, would have thought twice about getting involved with her daughter had he known he would face prosecution. Instead, he went on to work at another school.

Lovely’s proposal would make sure schools have strong hiring policies and screening standards in place to prevent what’s known as “passing the trash,” when problem educators are hired despite histories of sexual misconduct. It would also ban schools from signing agreements keeping any information about an individual’s past allegations secret.

Educators generally honor their position of trust. For the small minority who may be tempted to abuse their authority, Lovely’s bill would make it clear that what is morally wrong also is a violation of the law.