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Legislation passed in the Rhode Island legislature Tuesday will close a loophole in state law which allows teachers to have sexual relationships with students as young as 14, potentially leaving Massachusetts as the only state where such relationships are legal.
Most states where the age of consent is 16 have laws preventing teachers, and others in position of authority, from having sex with minors, even if the student is of the age of consent. Massachusetts and Rhode Island have not had such protections, making it legal in both states for teachers to sexually touch children as young as 14, with their consent, in a non-penetrative way.
The Rhode Island legislation, which has passed both the state House and Senate and is now awaiting a signature from the governor, would make it third degree sexual assault for someone in a position of authority to have a sexual relationship with minors.
Rhode Island state Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, R., sponsored the legislation in the Senate for three years, told Fox News Digital she hops its passage will prevent the sexual assault of students and enable the prosecution of those in power who take advantage of minors.
“As a mom first, now as a lawmaker, there is no greater priority than protecting our kids,” she said.
Erika Sanzi, a Rhode Island mom and education advocate, has been pushing similar legislation for five years in Rhode Island, and told Fox News Digital she believes several factors contributed to the legislation’s success this year. A primary factor, Sanzi said, was the teachers’ unions did not publicly oppose the bill, as they had done in the past.
When similar legislation was introduced in Rhode Island in 2019, the Providence Journal reported the two state teachers’ unions, as well as the state ACLU objected to the legislation because it singled out those who work in the school system but did not include others in positions of authority.
While the state ACLU continued to oppose the legislation this year, both state teachers’ unions stayed neutral.
Sen. de la Cruz said she also believes an investigation into a Rhode Island basketball coach who allegedly asked male student-athletes to disrobe while alone with him, so he could perform “body fat tests” was a catalyst for pushing the legislation through.
Rep. Julie A. Casimiro, D-North Kingstown, who sponsored the legislation in the Rhode Island House, told Fox News Digital, “I am thrilled to see this bipartisan legislation pass. It’s the right thing to do to protect our children. Ever week we are hearing reports of children being assaulted at the hands of people they trust. It needs to stop. I believe this is a great step forward in protecting our children.”
Once the governor signs the Rhode Island legislation, Massachusetts will be the only state where it remains legal for teachers to have sexual relationships with students as young as 14.
Massachusetts state Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, has introduced legislation in her state to close this loophole, but they have yet to pass the legislature.
“We must protect our youth from being taken advantage of by people who would use their positions of power and authority to engage in inappropriate sexual conduct and behavior,” Lovely told Fox News Digital in a statement. “Child sexual abuse prevention is my number one priority, and I am proud to file legislation that would not only hold perpetrators accountable, but also set a precedent to safeguard vulnerable adolescents and individuals from being manipulated by those they trust.”