Rhode Island Democrats Split Over Bill That Criminalizes Sex Between Teachers and Children

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June 24, 2022

Rhode Island's General Assembly this week voted to criminalize sex between authority figures, such as teachers or coaches, and children—even as 10 Democrats failed to back the measure.

Amid Democratic infighting, Rhode Island on Tuesday approved House Bill 8230, which will punish persons in authority who have sexual relations or engage in sexual contact with minors. The bill passed 64-4 with 7 abstentions, 6 of whom are Democrats, just days after the Senate voted unanimously in favor of it. State representatives Edith Ajello (D.), Leonela Felix (D.), Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (D.), and Jason Knight (D.) opposed the measure, sparking criticism from members of their own party.

"Recently, we have heard more and more of these situations where people in authority have taken advantage of our children in Rhode Island," Democratic state representative Julie Casimiro, who cosponsored the bill, told the Washington Free Beacon. "I don't know why four voted against it and others 'took a walk' so they didn't have to vote. Voting yes is a vote to protect children. Voting no is a vote to protect predators!"

The outcome highlights ongoing divisions in the Democratic Party and among their allies over sex crimes, with some preferring latitude in the legal code toward certain kinds of underage sex relations. The bill comes on the heels of several reports in Rhode Island on sex scandals involving high school coaches and teachers, some of whom had been shuffled to other districts and faced zero consequences. The Ocean State has one of the nation's worst systems for reporting and providing information to parents about teachers' sexual misconduct, according to a 2016 report by USA Today.

"Recent events in our state have further underscored the need to ensure that our laws protect our children from adults who use their position, and access, to harm them," Rhode Island attorney general Peter Neronha (D.) said in a May letter expressing support for the legislation.

The vote caps a years-long effort to codify protections for minors against predatory sexual behavior by adults acting in loco parentis. A little more than half of states have age-of-consent laws that begin at 16 years old. States often extend that to 18, however, when the offender is in a position of authority. Rhode Island was one of a handful of states without such a statutory rape provision. Once signed by the governor, the new law will expand the definition of third-degree sexual assault, which is punishable by up to five years in prison, closing a loophole that did not protect teenagers above 16, the age of consent in the state.

Earlier forms of the bill failed in the state legislature in 2019, as teachers' unions advocated against the law. The National Education Association of Rhode Island, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals (RIFTHP) all objected. During a 2019 committee hearing, RIFTHP field representative James Parisi spoke against the legislation, saying it "singled out" teachers as opposed to other people in authority over children. He further argued that loss of employment and teaching license were punishment enough.

"If a teacher is having sex with a student, they're going to get fired, and the precedent in Rhode Island is you also lose your teacher's certificate, your license to work," Parisi said.

Parisi told the Free Beacon that RIFTHP "did not object to the bill's passage" this time, since the legislation addressed "other adults in a position of authority such as athletic coaches, business owners, and even legislators."

The Rhode Island ACLU and the NEARI did not respond to a request for comment.

Knight told the Free Beacon he supports "criminalizing sexual relationships between teachers and students," but feared the bill was overly broad. The legislation's so-called Romeo-and-Juliet provision, which admits exceptions when the victim and offender are closer than 30 months in age or between the ages of 16 and 20, he said, was not strong enough to protect "otherwise innocent young-adult relationships."

"What I was concerned about was the [resident assistant] at the college, in a dorm, or someone like that, who has some sort of relationship with a 17-year-old freshman," Knight said. "That person would be outside the Romeo-and-Juliet provision, and we would be saying that that person is legally and criminally the very same thing as a 50 year old who has sex with a 14 year old."

"I support the policy, but I just didn't think that this bill was well written and that's why I voted no," Knight said.

The Rhode Island ACLU submitted written testimony citing identical concerns with the bill. "While one may disagree as to whether these relationships are appropriate, they simply should not carry the weight of a potential felony conviction," the group said.

Democratic state representative Carlos Tobon told the Free Beacon the bill was "an excellent piece of legislation," but he abstained because he was out of state when the vote occurred.

Ajello, Felix, and Marcia Ranglin-Vassell did not respond to requests for comment on their decisions not to vote for the bill.

Democratic state representatives Gregory Costantino, Rebecca Kislak, Steven Lima, Michelle McGaw, and June Speakman did not respond to a request for comment about their abstentions.

Republican state representative Sherry Roberts, who abstained, told the Free Beacon she voted in favor of the bill in committee, but was unable to be present in the House to pass it. She said the law "was long overdue and critically important to help protect our children against sexual predators who hold positions of authority."

Rhode Island state senator Jessica de la Cruz (R.), the foremost Senate sponsor, said the bill would not have passed "without the support of so many parents," who provided hours of testimony in committee hearings in favor of the bill.

"I was proud to be the lead on closing this major loophole in our sexual assault laws. As a mom first and now a lawmaker, there is no greater priority than protecting our children," de la Cruz said. "This legislation assures parents that any adult who abuses their position of authority to sexually exploit or abuse a child in their care will be punished accordingly."

Update 6:26 p.m.: This piece has been updated with a comment from Republican state representative Sherry Roberts.