March 27, 2018 -- Atlanta -- Lawmakers in the Georgia House of Representatives vote for Senate Bill 154, expanding the prohibition on sex with high school students.
Photo: TY TAGAMI / AJC
Photo: TY TAGAMI / AJC

High school sex ban exits Georgia House of Representatives 

Legislation that prohibits high school workers from having sex with students cleared the Georgia House of Representatives unanimously Tuesday.

The author of Senate Bill 154 introduced it on the House floor as “a very ugly topic.” It criminalizes sex and sexual touching between any school employee or school “agent” and students. 

The age of consent in Georgia is 16. When most students reach it midway through high school, adults can legally have sex with them.

In 2009, though, recognizing a power imbalance that affects the ability to give true consent, lawmakers made it a felony for teachers and school administrators to have sexual relationships with students over whom they have “supervisory or disciplinary authority.” It was deemed to be sexual assault.

But Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, the main sponsor of SB 154 bill, sees a remaining loophole: “any other employee, it’s not a crime for them to have sex with a student.”

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Even teachers can have sex with students as long as the students aren’t assigned to their class the way prosecutors read the 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.

It’s a violation of teacher ethical standards, so they’d probably lose their jobs, but they likely wouldn’t go to prison. The law is also silent for other staff in the building who don’t have teacher certificates, such as paraprofessionals, secretaries, kitchen workers and bus drivers.

SB 154 would change that.

It establishes a system of penalties that increase in severity with the seriousness of the act and level of authority.

Touching genitals or other “intimate” body parts — “sexual contact” — merits one to five years in prison for those with “supervisory authority or disciplinary authority for” the victim, but is only a misdemeanor for those without.

“Sexually explicit conduct,” the more serious offense, includes eight acts that cover much or all of the imaginable ground between intercourse and sadomasochism. It brings one to 25 years in prison for those with authority or one to 10 years for those without.

In both cases, it’s only a misdemeanor if the worker is under 21.

The punishment is more severe when the student is under 16: five to 20 years for contact and 25 to 50 for explicit conduct, but it’s only a misdemeanor if the worker is under 19.

The bill passed the House 169-0 and goes to the Senate, which will conclude business for the year on Thursday. It originated in the Senate with different content, and was stripped in the House and replaced with Setzler’s proposal. The Senate must approve the changes.

It’s been a work in progress, building on last year’s House Bill 32 by Rep. Joyce Chandler, R-Grayson

Her bill came after the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the sexual assault conviction of Cherokee County high school wrestling coach Robert Leslie Morrow, who was convicted in 2014 under the current law.

In a unanimous decision, the high court found that the statute didn’t apply to him because he was a paraprofessional.

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