Lawmakers may broaden ban on sex between high school workers, students

The Georgia Gold Dome. TY TAGAMI/ AJC

The Georgia Gold Dome. TY TAGAMI/ AJC

Last year, a father in Cobb County called state Rep. Ed Setzler to complain that a volunteer Lacrosse coach in his 40s had tried to have sex with his teenage daughter on the team.

The dad complained to police, but they told him they couldn’t do anything about it because his daughter had reached the age of consent, which is 16 in Georgia.

“Unfortunately,” Setzler said, “this is something that’s out there every day.”

It's already a felony for teachers, principals and other school authorities to have sexual contact with students they directly supervise or discipline, but others in a school building are not included in the prohibition. So teachers can legally have sex with a student who isn't in one of their classes. If caught, they're supposed to lose their job and their career, but they won't go to prison. Kitchen workers, janitors, bus drivers, secretaries and others without educator licenses, including volunteer Lacrosse coachesalso aren't covered by current criminal law.

"It's so narrowly drawn right now that it's literally unenforceable," said Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia.

Legislation by Setzler, R-Acworth, expands the legal prohibition to any employee "or agent," such as a maintenance contractor, of a school.

The effort to change the law is supported by Skandalakis' group and by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state's largest teacher group. But it's complicated by the fact that the age of consent comes midway through high school. A teacher would go to prison for up to 25 years for sleeping with his or her 16-year-old student under current law, but the student's boss at a part-time job would face no criminal penalty.

Setzler wanted to expand the ban but he imagined scenarios in which recent high school graduates could go to prison for sleeping with a boyfriend or girlfriend who was still a student and he didn’t want to establish draconian punishments for relationships that would be illegal in a school but legal elsewhere.

So, Senate Bill 154 establishes what Setzler calls "tiered" sanctions. Currently, any sexual contact by a teacher with his or her student — touching a breast or other "intimate" body part for sexual gratification — is considered sexual assault. But Setzler would differentiate between contact and what he's calling "sexually explicit conduct."

His guiding principal: “A touch sends you to jail, but if you have sex with a kid you’re going to prison.”

Sexual contact, the lesser offense, would be a felony punishable by one to five years in prison and a fine of $25,000. There would be leniency with so-called “Romeo and Juliet” cases: When the worker is under 21, it would be a misdemeanor so long as the student had reached the age of consent (and it would remain a misdemeanor with victims as young as 14 provided the worker is under 19).

Sexually explicit conduct, meanwhile, would be a major offense. The definition includes eight acts that cover much or all of the imaginable ground between intercourse and sadomasochism. Perpetrators who had no direct authority over the student could get one to 10 years and a $50,000 fine. For those who do have that authority, the penalty in current law applies: one to 25 years and a $100,000 fine.

The punishment rises to 25 to 50 years where the victim is under the age of consent (unless the worker is under 19).

Current law bars sexual interactions between other kinds of workers and people under their responsibility. That group, such as hospital workers, psychotherapists, licensed personal care home workers, police officers, probation officers and prison guards, would be covered by the punishment tiers in Setzler’s bill, too.

Setzler isn’t the author of record of SB 154. That’s because the bill he wrote didn’t get a vote by the House of Representatives by the Feb. 28 deadline. So House leaders commandeered a moribund Senate bill with the consent of the author and replaced the language with Setzler’s. That means SB 154 must still get through both chambers of the General Assembly by Thursday, the last day of this legislative session, to become law.