Students of all ages deserve protection from sexual predators

One of the founding principles upon which governments in civilized societies are based is the notion of public safety.

If a like-minded group of people can’t band together and keep each other safe, through the understanding and enforcement of a set of protective standards, all other forms of organized commerce, association and collective benefit begin to fall apart.

History is replete with examples of this truth all the way back to the Roman Empire and its policy of “Pax Romana,” or “Roman Peace.”

Once the Roman Empire began to collapse and recall its forces back to Rome, the prosperity and advancements in society began to crumble. Without the protection and enforcement of Rome’s laws a power vacuum was created that led to a time of chaos and confusion; a time we refer to today as “The Dark Ages.”

While our struggles with understanding and enforcing our laws here in Washington are not quite so dramatic, they can, nonetheless, have dramatic consequences for those involved.

For instance, a former music teacher at Richland High School was recently accused of having sex with an 18-year-old student, but because the definition of “minor” in existing law was ambiguous, the case was thrown out of court.

The injustice and the feelings of personal guilt and responsibility must be agonizing for the victim and the victim’s family. On one hand, common decency says that a crime has been committed; on the other, the state of Washington says, “no.”

The frustration in this case – and one like it from Grays Harbor County – is the fact that the focus by the defense was on the age standard of the statute, not the student standard. Simply because the victims were 18 – and adults by legal standards – the fact they were also students made no difference.

But let’s be very clear in our understanding of the intent of the law: Students in our schools should be safe from being preyed upon by sexual predators, period.

Within the confines of the student/teacher or student/school personnel relationship, there exists an element of trust and authority not necessarily found outside of school. That sanctity of trust must not be violated – ever – no matter the age of the student.

In today’s classroom, we have many students who don’t graduate from high school until they reach 18 years of age. Are they not worthy of the same protections the rest of their classmates enjoy?

This is especially critical for our alternative and developmentally disabled students as they oftentimes graduate with their peers but don’t actually leave the organized classroom until they are 19- or 20-years-old.

The injustice of this crime has me – and many of you, judging from the calls and e-mails I’ve received – incensed.

With the help of the Richland School Board, I’m proposing legislation this session to close the so-called “18-year-old loophole” in our “sexual misconduct with a minor” statutes.

My proposal, House Bill 1013, includes language to protect students up to 21 years of age. It also includes new minimum prison sentences for first and second degree sexual misconduct – five years and one year, respectively – if the crimes involve a student/school personnel relationship.

I believe the words “ambiguity,” “unclear” and “vague” have no place in defending those who would do our children harm. We need to make it abundantly clear to sexual predators that they cannot hide their intentions behind obscure vernacular.

While it won’t right the injustice of recent crimes, our actions can make a difference for future students. Before we can teach our students, we must be able to protect them; from threats outside our schools, and within.

Rep. Larry Haler represents the 8th Legislative District. He is the ranking member on the House Early Learning and Children’s Service Committee and also serves on the House Education Appropriations Committee. Haler and his wife, Jenifer, live in Richland.

State Representative Larry Haler, 8th Legislative District
122H Legislative Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7986 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000