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Bill seeks to close sexual-abuse loophole

Monday - 2/17/2014, 5:22am  ET

WASHINGTON - In 2012, Montgomery County police arrested a 47-year-old teacher on charges he engaged in sex with students - but he wasn't prosecuted.

Under Maryland law, because the students were 16 and older, the teacher was a part-time employee and the sex acts didn't occur at the place he coached or taught, no crime had been committed. Child advocates call it "the Saturday- afternoon loophole."

Maryland legislators moved to close that loophole. So Maryland Senator Jamie Raskin crafted a bill to go after teachers and coaches in a variety of settings: Part-time teachers or coaches at public or private schools and gyms would be subject to criminal law if they engaged in sex with a 16- or 17-year-old. (Sex with minors under 16 is a crime in Maryland; this bill covers teens above the age of consent who are under the direction of a teacher or coach.)

But Senate Bill 460 has a loophole of its own: If a teacher or coach is no more than 7 years older than the student they coach or teach, they would not be subject to the law. So a 24-year- old teacher or coach could legally engage in a sexual relationship with a 16- or 17-year-old. While most schools and organizations would find that a fireable offense, it would not be a crime.

Raskin insists the provision is a recognition of how tough it's been to close the existing loophole: "This issue has been around for more than a decade." And while lawmakers argue over cases where teachers and coaches are close in age to their students, older part-time teachers and coaches are getting away with predatory behavior.

Lisae Jordan, executive director and counsel at the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, agrees with Raskin: She says she's been fighting to get passage of a bill to tackle this issue since 2003. "If we don't include a bill that has some compromises, it's never going to pass." Jordan and Raskin say the exception in the law doesn't keep a school or organization from firing a teacher or coach who engages in sex with a student. And getting passage of the bill is critical.

Jordan says that in the 10 years she's been fighting for a similar bill to prosecute part-time teachers and coaches who prey on teens, she's seen a steady stream of victims sit in her office and has had to tell them there's no law to help them. "We're simply falling down on the job, we're not protecting those teenagers because we can't reach a compromise."

Raskin and Jordan say that if the bill passes, the provision regarding coaches and teachers who are less than seven years older than their students could be tweaked or eliminated. Raskin says it's a question of "not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good."

WTOP's Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter and on the WTOP Facebook page.

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