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Editorial: Limited scope results in loophole for sexual misconduct charges against school staff

The dropping of a felony charge in a local criminal case last week points out an apparent loophole in state law that needs to be filled. Hopefully, members of our local legislative delegation will lead the effort to do so when the General Assembly convenes again next January.

At issue is the case of a former high school basketball coach accused of sexual misconduct with a student.

District Attorney Lee Darragh last week announced that the most serious of the charges against the former coach, felony sexual assault against a student, had been dropped, and the case moved from Superior Court to State Court so that lesser charges could still be prosecuted.

The explanation for the dropped charge was disheartening. According to Darragh, the current criminal law under which the charge was originally brought requires that the school staff member being charged be an employee of the same school attended by the student. In this particular case, though the suspect coached at the high school, he was actually employed at a different school.

That’s a flaw in the law that needs to be fixed and we hope our local lawmakers will take it upon themselves to make sure it happens.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Mandy Harris
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo

The existing law is very specific in stating that the charge of sexual assault against a student can be levied only when the victim is “enrolled at the same school” at which the suspect is employed. Other charges may still be applicable but the felony charge meant to protect students is flawed by the limitation in its scope.

It seems obvious that a change needs to be made.

Professional educators sign a contract with a school system for employment, not with an individual school. Given that, it would make sense that the law be modified, in the very least, to reflect the criminal charge could be applied on a systemwide basis rather than an individual school basis, so that prosecution would be possible if a student is enrolled in the school system which is the employer.

The “sexual assault against student” law exists because of the assumption that an adult educator has “supervisory or disciplinary authority” over the student. In an environment where student and staff from different schools are comingled, is there not the expectation that a level of authority still exists?

In the modern world of public education, educators often work in some capacity at more than one school. To limit their culpability for misconduct based on the school at which they are based is nonsensical.

Lacking a change for considering systemwide application of the law, or in addition to such a change, lawmakers should also make it clear that any coach, student adviser or staff member employed at one school but also working at another be considered part of the professional faculty at any school at which he or she works, regardless of the base of employment.

If a middle school teacher is a coach at a high school, as was the case in the instance at hand, is there not a presumption that the coach has supervisory and disciplinary authority at both schools? In fact, is that not the case anytime there is a gathering of educators and students, regardless of district? Isn’t there always the presumption the adult educator has supervisory responsibility and authority?

The law needs to be clear in such instances, so that educators, law enforcement officers and prosecutors all understand exactly its intent and potential for application.

It’s distressing that we even have to discuss the need to address such issues. The reality is that statistically the number of employees of public school systems who abuse the privilege of their position is miniscule. But when it does happen, there is great public interest in such cases, as there should be.

In the local case, the school system acted swiftly to suspend the accused, who subsequently resigned. But the school system has no role in the prosecution of the case, which is within the purview of the district attorney and the state court solicitor. Those prosecutors need better laws with which to work.

We do not know if the local coach is guilty of the remaining lesser charges against him; will not know until his case is adjudicated in some fashion. But we do know that the most serious of the charges he faced has been dropped and that the laws pertaining to such situations need to be fixed. That’s a job for the state legislature, and one we hope to see undertaken when next it convenes.

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