Bill to close teacher-student sex loophole heads to Sununu

  • Former Concord teacher Howie Leung appeared in court in Newton, Mass. on Nov. 6, 2019. Eileen O'Grady

Monitor staff
Published: 6/30/2020 1:05:27 PM

A bill prohibiting sexual contact between New Hampshire teachers and students regardless of a student’s age is moving forward after a rocky path toward passage.

The bill passed both the House and Senate Tuesday, moving the legislation to Gov. Chris Sununu, who has indicated he will sign the measure into law.

Lawmakers had proposed multiple bills in response to the arrest last year of Concord High School teacher Howie Leung, who is facing charges of sexually assaulting a student off school property in Massachusetts in 2015 and 2016. In a separate incident, students reported seeing him kiss a different student in Concord in 2018, but school officials did not notify police because state law allows teenagers 16 and older to consent to such contact if they are not being coerced.

While there was bipartisan support for closing that loophole, differences emerged over the scope of the legislation.

One version – unanimously passed by the Senate – would have applied only to teachers and students at the same school.

But that version soon drew criticism from the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence for being too confined, implicitly allowing sexual relations between other adults with supervisory authority and 16- to 18-year-olds.

Advocates also took issue with the requirement in the Senate bill that coercion must be shown in order for the sexual behavior to be criminalized. Requiring that would exempt cases of grooming, advocates said, like situations where predators use gifts and attention to prime a child to think what they’re doing is consensual.

Instead, the coalition rallied behind a version passed by the House, which would criminalize sexual contact between teens ages 16 or 17 and anyone in a position of authority outside of school, including coaches, clergy and scout leaders.

That version was not initially added to a series of omnibus packages put together by the Senate and voted on earlier this month, prompting lawmakers on both sides to assume the effort was dead.

With time running out on the legislative session, the effort appeared stalled until Monday, when the Senate passed a bill mirroring the broader House version. That happened after Senate Democrats opted to revive the bill by taking it off the table.

Speaking on the bill Monday, Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, praised the late turnaround.

“I think it took a lot of justified anger by an awful lot of different people,” he said on the Senate floor. And he drew attention on the floor to Ana Goble, a former Rundlett Middle School student who in 2014 attempted to sound the alarm after she said she witnessed Leung acting inappropriately with students while he was teaching there. Goble was instead suspended by the principal.

Sen. Martha Hennessey, a Hanover Democrat who had proposed the narrower version of the bill, signaled support for the final agreement, but not without voicing “disappointments.”

Senate Democrats have expressed qualms with the more expansive version, reasoning that it could lead to unintended consequences, such as criminalizing sexual relations between a 22-year-old supervisor and a 17-year employee.

Senate Democrats also expressed reservations with an addition to the final version: a four-year minimum age buffer. That buffer requires that the adult violator be at least four years older than the 16- or 17-year-old for the behavior to count as sexual assault. Senate Democrats argued that that version was less expansive than theirs. 

“It’s taken some deep contemplation and understanding,” Hennesey said on the floor. “My own feeling is that HB 1250 is not perfect.”

Hennessey said she would have preferred if the Senate advanced Senate Bill 572, her version, which received a unanimous vote in the senate earlier this year.

But she said she could accept the compromise bill. “Essentially, for the moment it gets the job done,” she said.

On Tuesday, the bill passed the House floor overwhelmingly, 257-68, moving to the governor’s office.

Sununu blamed Democrats for the delay.

“Earlier this month I called on the Senate to quit playing politics and get this bill done,” Sununu said in a statement. “Ensuring there is proper justice for victims of sexual assault is paramount, and this will close a critical loophole and protect students from sexual assault at the hands of those in a position of authority over the victim.”

Concord Sen. Dan Feltes, a Democrat running for governor, blamed House Republicans for declining to extend crucial bill deadlines two weeks ago, sinking Hennessey’s bill.

“We wouldn’t have been able to make progress this year or take this important step to protect our children from abuse without the leadership of Sen. Martha Hennessey,” he said. “We took a significant step forward today.”

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.)




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