By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Teachers and other school employees would be guilty of sexual assault if they have sex with students regardless of the age of consent under a bill heard before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Thursday.
Similar to bills heard last week in the Senate, House Bill 1240 would close a perceived loophole in the law and hold that any teacher or school employee who engages in sexual activity with a student between the ages of 13 and 18 “shall be guilty of felonious sexual assault or aggravated felonious sexual assault.”
In addition, those individuals would face a loss of teaching credentials. The age of sexual consent in New Hampshire is 16.
State Rep. Katherine Prudhomme-O’Brien, R-Derry, sponsor, said she was inspired to write the bill after reading about the case of former Concord High School teacher Primo “Howie” Leung. Leung was charged with sexually assaulting a former Concord student at a summer program in Massachusetts when the student was 13 and 14. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Leung was allegedly seen kissing an 18-year-old Concord High School student in a car on school grounds but district officials did not report the matter for months, in part, they claimed because the student was of the age of consent. The matter led to a number of administrative dismissals, but it appeared there was no criminal law to protect the student in such a case, said those testifying in support of the bill.
This bill has the same intent as Senate Bills 468 and 572, said proponents. Those two bills are expected to be amended and merged and may be more far-reaching but this bill would be a good first step to protect students now, said Diana E. Fenton, an attorney with the state Department of Education.
A former criminal prosecutor who authored the 2018 code of conduct booklet for all educators, Fenton said this bill would be a good step toward closing a loophole.
“While it does not happen very often,” Fenton said, “inappropriate sex cases with students do occur, not just in Concord.”
She said the Department of Education will take action on an educator’s ability to teach, but the parallel track of criminal proceedings can be complicated by the issue of the age of consent.
“This handles that discrepancy,” Fenton told the committee.
Fenton said the Senate is also looking at creating a state background check for all teachers. Absent that, she said, “I believe that New Hampshire has created itself to be a safe haven for pedophiles.”
State Rep. Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton who is co-sponsor of the bill and spent 12 years as a law enforcement officer, much of it dealing with child sexual assault cases, said the bill would be beneficial.
“The goal of the bill is to close a perceived loophole,” Lang said. “The goal is unambiguous…and clear so there is no ambiguity….you cannot have sex with any student, period.”
Lyn Schollett, executive director of the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the bill could go deeper than it does. Contractors at schools are not included, for example.
Schollett said the two bills moving through the Senate are dealing with a lot of the questions raised by the bill and that in the end, the state needs to deal with the issue. The coalition is committed to working with the sponsors to ensure the safety of children in schools, Schollett said.