PROVIDENCE — As advocates and politicians spoke at the State House Monday about needing to make it illegal for authority figures to have sexual relations with teenagers under their supervision, one woman listened quietly.
Former North Kingstown High School basketball coach Aaron Thomas had performed “naked fat tests” on two of her sons when they were teenage student-athletes at the school. One of her sons was only 13 when it started.
Later, her sons and other former student athletes came forward as adults about Thomas’ testing program, in which he asked them “Are you shy or not shy?” to get them to voluntarily disrobe, and how he touched their naked bodies, including their inner thighs and groins.
The mother was nearly crying after watching politicians urge support for legislation to make such sexual contact a crime. “If this [law] existed back then, we would be in a different state,” she said.
Senate Minority Whip Jessica de la Cruz, a Republican for District 23, and Senator Frank Lombardi, a Democrat for District 26, say the bill they’re sponsoring, S 2219, will close a loophole in state law that permits those with supervisory or disciplinary power — like coaches and teachers — to have sexual relations with minors between 14 and 18 years old. State Representative Julie A. Casimiro, Democrat for District 31, which includes North Kingstown, is sponsoring the House bill.
Under state law, a person who engages in sex with a minor under 14 years old is guilty of first-degree child molestation sexual assault. Under the bills, anyone in a position of authority who has sexual contact, such as touching, or penetration with a minor over 14 and under 18 years old would be guilty of third-degree sexual assault. A conviction of third-degree sexual assault carries a penalty of five years in prison.
This proposed legislation allows an exception if both parties are between 16 and 20 years old, and no more than 30 months apart in age.
Previous versions of this legislation, which focused on those who work in schools, met opposition from the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU and teachers unions. The ACLU voiced concerns about singling out teachers and criminalizing school volunteers who could be close in age to the student, and the teachers’ unions objected to criminalizing conduct by school employees and not those in other supervisory positions. The House passed the legislation in 2019, but the Senate did not take action.
A spokeswoman for the National Education Association of Rhode Island said Monday the organization was not taking a position on the current legislation.
Both de la Cruz and Lombardi sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which heard the bill last month and held it for further study. Casimiro’s bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.
While the age of consent in Rhode Island is 16, “It’s odious to think a child can consent to sex with a person of authority,” de la Cruz said. “The sense of urgency is real and the time [to pass the bill] is now.”
Lombardi said that the General Assembly needed to act soon, before the end of the session next month, to pass the legislation and “prevent anyone with authority from exploiting the loophole.”
Lawyer Timothy J. Conlon, who is representing several former student-athletes accusing the North Kingstown School Department of ignoring Thomas’ conduct, said later that the bill sends a message that abuse of authority won’t be tolerated, and gives the police a mandate to take action against child predators.
The legislation would make prosecution easier, because it eliminates any discussion of “consent” by the minor, Conlon said.
“Most Rhode Islanders would be shocked to learn that an adult teacher who takes advantage of a 16-year-old girl with a crush who wants to have sex with her teacher can claim that their sexual intercourse is ‘consensual,’ and accordingly not subject to prosecution,” Conlon said in a statement.
“In 40 years, I have encountered this absurdity in connection with teachers, coaches, group home workers, and clergy of all denominations, because our age of consent laws as written do not explicitly address the imbalance of power in such relationships — and the obvious fact that someone in a position of trust cannot meaningfully get consent for sex acts from a child in their care.”