In her continuing review of the topic of inappropriate relationships between teachers and their students, Erika Sanzi has come across another quirk in Rhode Island law:
In doing further research this week, I stumbled upon the very troubling fact that sex acts with 14 year olds by adults, including those in positions of authority, is perfectly legal under current law in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I called the the Rhode Island’s Attorney General’s office to confirm and, the next day, I received a call from them confirming what I had found. I asked them directly, over the phone, “so you are saying that it is perfectly legal for a teacher or school bus driver to sexually touch 14 year olds, with their consent, as long as there is no penetration?” Their response was a simple, “yes”.
Sanzi suggests that Rhode Island’s permissive laws are why we rarely have entries in the series of news stories having to do with teachers “arrested for sexual misconduct with students.” The states that generate those stories tend to “have laws on the books that make it a crime.”
Without contemplating the boundaries of the acts themselves, we could characterize the above blockquote as an illustration that Rhode Island permits grooming of young children to be prepared to go much farther once they hit the age of consent at 16.
A question of consistency arises. Rhode Island law forbids second degree sexual assault, defined as any “sexual contact with another person” if the other person is “mentally incapacitated, mentally disabled, or physically helpless” or the accused “uses force, element of surprise, or coercion,” whatever these things might entail. The law even takes care to include “medical treatment or examination” as a potential means of assault.
Yet, the rationale for statutory rape (that is, sex with minors) is that children are not sufficiently mature to consent. If that’s the case, then it isn’t clear why third degree sexual assault, which is Rhode Island’s designation for statutory rape, would be limited to “sexual penetration.” Why would inappropriately touching an adult who has the mental capacities of a child be violative, but inappropriately touching a child would not?
Of course, one can understand why the law pulls back from drawing very hard lines around such relationships. Should we find it hard to believe that a 17 year old might fall in love with somebody who is just shy of 15, with the consequence that there would be a period during which the one is over 18 and the other is under 16? After all, the law defines “sexual contact” broadly enough to include (as the old song goes) heavy petting.
Even this allowance to human freedom, however, reinforces Sanzi’s complaint that teachers aren’t in a special category for these relationships. As easy as it may be to imagine students or coworkers or neighbors who have relationships that we’d hesitate to criminalize, those sympathetic situations shouldn’t apply to teachers and their students.