PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island General Assembly has overwhelming passed legislation that would make it a crime for authority figures to have sexual contact with teenagers under their supervision.
With no debate, the full House voted Tuesday to approve bills sponsored by Republican Senator Jessica de la Cruz, and a companion bill sponsored by Democratic Representative Julie Casimiro. The full Senate unanimously passed de la Cruz’s bill last Thursday.
Representatives Edith Ajello of Providence, Jason Knight of Barrington and Warren, Leonela Felix of Pawtucket, David Bennett of Warwick, and John G. Edwards of Tiverton voted against one or both bills.
The legislation makes it a third-degree crime for someone with supervisory or disciplinary power — like coaches, teachers, and priests — to have sexual relations with minors between 14 and 18 years old.
The legislation allows an exemption if both parties are between 16 and 20 years old, and no more than 30 months apart in age.
Supporters have said these bills will close a loophole in the law that leaves teens vulnerable to predators. However, past legislation had specifically targeted teachers and would have criminalized consensual relationships between teens close in age.
These bills addressed the age gap and broadened subjects to include anyone with authority over a minor. The timing of the legislation came in the aftermath of accusations that longtime high school basketball coach Aaron Thomas had conducted “naked fat tests” of teen boys for about 25 years.
Thomas is under investigation by the attorney general’s office and the North Kingstown police, but has not been criminally charged.
Attorney General Peter F. Neronha has said that he supported the legislation.
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. The state law also criminalizes anyone over 18 who has sexual penetration with a minor who over 14 and under 16 years old.
The legislation would make it a third-degree sexual assault for 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. A conviction of third-degree sexual assault carries a penalty of five years in prison.