Observers of the intersection between education and politics in Rhode Island might be interested in the national attention our local teachers unions have been getting for their opposition to a bill that would make it illegal for teachers to have physically intimate relationships with students under 18 years of age. Here’s William Donohue in what appears to be a syndicated (or at least broadly published) op-ed:
On April 1, Pat Crowley of the state chapter of the National Education Association (NEA) noted his opposition to the bill at a hearing, though he did not elaborate. On April 8, Robert Walsh, the executive director of the NEA Rhode Island defended the organization’s opposition while saying, “It is patently ridiculous for anyone to imply that our organization, or any individual teacher, would condone any inappropriate relationship between a teacher and his or her students.”
What is patently ridiculous is to claim how horrible it is for a student between the ages of 14 and 18 to be a victim of sexual assault by a public school employee while also objecting to legislation that would punish such conduct. The power disparity between an agent of the state and a teenager should be obvious, even to lobbyists.
The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in Rhode Island was represented by James Parisi. On April 8 he made the same argument he made a week earlier, noting the discriminatory nature of the legislation.
“You should include all the adults who have employment or other types of authority over 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds,” Parisi said.
The argument of unfair application sounds very much like a distraction. Given that state government has direct authority over public schools and assumes special authority over education, generally, there’s nothing wrong with legislators’ setting special rules of conduct for educators. Note, for example, a statute written in 1896 and last modified in 1956 that requires that “every teacher shall aim to implant and cultivate in the minds of all children committed to his or her care the principles of morality and virtue.” (One suspects if that were more commonly enforced, special rules about sexual relationships wouldn’t be needed.)
Donohue notes one other consideration that is particularly relevant to him as the long-time head of the Catholic League:
What makes this argument so stunning is that the public schools have been protected in every state in the nation from the same legislation on this issue that applies to the Catholic Church. Whenever there is a bill that allows for the prosecution of old cases of abuse—extending back to World War II—the public schools are typically given an exemption.
In the little bit of time I had available, today, I wasn’t able to confirm the 90-day window that Donohue claims, but I did come across RIGL 9-1-25, which makes the statute of limitations just three years to initiate “actions or claims in tort against the state or any political subdivision thereof.” The statute of limitations for “actions based on sexual abuse or exploitation of a child” does not contain the magic phrase “notwithstanding any other law,” so it isn’t clear whether it supersedes the special rules for government entities.
One datapoint suggesting that the sexual abuse statute does not supersede the special treatment of government entities is legislation from Senator Donna Nesselbush (D, Providence). She included a change to 9-1-25 in this year’s version of her bill, which would extend the statute of limitations for the sexual abuse of children. The similar legislation she submitted last year did not do so. This change suggests that the new language is needed, and without it, public schools and other government agencies have a blanket statute of limitations of three years.
Be that as it may, the unionists have the legal principle exactly backwards. On the occasions when we restrict liberty in the name of moral opprobrium, we should do so as narrowly as possible. People should be able to construct the norms of their homes and places of work freely. When it comes to public workplaces, it falls to the public to set the norms.
That does not mean, however, that due process in and out of government employment should differ — certainly not in a way that loosens standards for the public sector.