Lawmakers work toward consensus proposal to strengthen sexual assault statute after Leung case

  • The State House dome is seen on Nov. 18, 2016, as the restoration project nears completion. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

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

Monitor staff
Published: 3/9/2020 6:14:07 PM

Lawmakers are trying to reach a consensus on three competing bills in the New Hampshire House and Senate that call for criminalizing sexual contact between educators and students in the wake of an ex-Concord High School teacher’s arrest on sexual assault charges.

While each bill arose from a place of shared concern, advocates say not all of the proposals go far enough to ensure that adults would be held accountable in situations similar to what unfolded in Concord, where special education teacher Primo “Howie” Leung is accused of having inappropriate contact with female students.

As it stands now, House Bill 1240 is the most comprehensive to move forward following the unanimous passage of an amendment, which was introduced by Rep. Renny Cushing in committee last week. The bill – which is scheduled for a full House vote this week – would outlaw all sexual contact between students and adults charged with their care, including teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, volunteer chaperones and contractual bus drivers. Further, the bill explicitly states that consent by any student – even those older than New Hampshire’s consent age of 16 – is not a defense to sexual abuse perpetrated by an adult in an educational or learning environment.

Two Senate bills are also up for a vote this week but provide fewer protections. A bill brought forward by Sen. Martha Hennessey, would prohibit only those adults directly employed by an educational institution from having sexual contact with students, meaning there could still be a loophole in the law for substitute teachers, unpaid coaches and other volunteers. Another bill, sponsored by Senator Jeb Bradley, accounts for more than just employed teachers but criminalizes sexual contact with students only until age 17, which excludes many high school seniors.

In recognition of the bipartisan support for the modified House bill, Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, said he will move to amend either his own bill or Hennessey’s bill with the exact language brought forward by Rep. Cushing. He told the Monitor on Monday that he doesn’t care which bill reaches the governor’s desk as long as it contains the right language to ensure student safety.

“We just need to get the job done,” he said. “I think the Senate needs to take the position that reflects the best outcome for New Hampshire’s students.”

Hennessey, a Hanover Democrat, could not be reached Monday about whether she would support the measure. However, with Bradley, she did put forward an amendment during a public hearing before the Senate Judiciary to address some early concerns, including inconsistencies in how sexual contact was defined and the requirement that a prosecutor must prove an adult coerced a student. Ultimately, the committee, chaired by Hennessey, never took a vote on whether to adopt the amendment and, instead, voted 5-0 that the bill “ought to pass” as stands.

Presently, Hennessey’s bill is on the Senate’s consent calendar, meaning it can be fast-tracked through the voting process without discussion. A committee recommended that Bradley’s bill should be studied further by lawmakers, meaning it would be held back and not acted upon this session.

Bradley said he is still concerned by the deficiencies in both Senate bills. Of utmost concern is ensuring that adults in a position of authority are outlawed from having sexual contact with teenagers, and not just teachers, he said. Additionally, he said, prosecutors should not have to prove that an adult coerced a student to engage in sexual activity because predators will typically groom minors with gifts or special favors long before an assault.

Authorities allege Leung, who now awaits trial on rape charges in Massachusetts, had close relationships with several female students he taught and would bring them coffee or buy them lunch.

The girl who said Leung sexually assaulted her multiple times in 2015 and 2016 at the Fessenden School in West Newton, Mass., reported being inappropriately touched by him on separate occasions at Rundlett Middle School, as well.

Concord school officials were alerted Dec. 10 that Leung had “engaged in inappropriate conduct” with an 18-year-old female student, who is a different student than the victim in the Massachusetts case. Leung was reportedly seen by other students kissing the senior girl in a car in Concord.

School administrators said they did not report the incident with the 18-year-old to Concord police because of the student’s age. However, they did forward the results of their in-house investigation to the Department of Education, which ultimately notified authorities.

The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said in a statement Monday that it has continued to work closely with lawmakers, as well as stakeholders, including the state’s Department of Justice and the Department of Education, to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable when they sexually exploit teenagers in schools and elsewhere.

“We’re grateful to the sponsors of the three bills introduced this session aimed at closing glaring loopholes in the law that were brought to light by cases involving Howie Leung,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, the coalition’s director of public affairs. “Many citizens in Concord were shocked to learn that those working at schools and summer camps aren’t expressly prohibited from having sexual contact with teens over the age of 16. An outcry from these citizens led to the introduction of these bills, and it’s become clear that parents across the state hope that the legislature will prioritize these bills and quickly strengthen our laws.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369  -3319 or at adandrea@cmonitor.com.)



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