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Effort to criminalize sexual relations between teachers, students fails after legislative clash

  • Former Concord teacher Howie Leung appears in court in Newton, Mass. on Nov. 6, 2019. Eileen O’Grady / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/18/2020 5:47:59 PM


An effort to close the “Howie Leung loophole” and criminalize sexual relations between teachers and older students appears to be dead for the year, after state lawmakers failed to find a compromise on the details.

Despite broad bipartisan support from Democrats, Republicans, and Gov. Chris Sununu, the effort was derailed by disagreements between Senate Democrats and other lawmakers over the scope of the legislation.

Now, with end-of-year deadlines approaching, the clock has nearly run out.

The result: The Concord-based effort to change the state’s sexual assault laws in response to the arrest of a former teacher at Concord High School will likely have to wait another year.

The breakdown came despite areas of common ground. Lawmakers broadly agreed that it should be a crime for teachers to have sexual relations with students 16 years or older. Presently, that behavior does not constitute sexual assault under New Hampshire law, which sets 16 as the age of legal consent.

Activists and lawmakers had hoped to tighten up state law by forbidding those in positions of authority from having any sexual contact with teenagers they oversee, even if the student is above the age of consent. The campaign was driven by the case of Howie Leung, the former Concord High special education teacher who has been charged in Massachusetts with rape and who has been accused of having inappropriate relationships with students.

Students reported seeing Leung kiss a female student in a car outside Concord High School in December 2018, but administrators didn’t report it to police because they said the student was over 16. Instead, a report was sent to the state Department of Education since it would be a violation of the teacher code of conduct for an adult educator to kiss a student. State officials altered Concord Police, who launched a criminal investigation that led to the sex assault charges against Leung.

The effort to close the loophole started off on strong footing, but a rift quickly developed. Sen. Martha Hennessey, a Hanover Democrat, submitted a bill to criminalize sexual relations between teachers and students. The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence later advocated that the bill be expanded, pointing to limitations in the first version.

Hennessey’s bill was limited to sexual activity between teachers and students at the same school. It would not cover similar activity between 16- and 17-year-olds and those in other positions of authority, such as after-school karate or dance instructors. And it would not cover sexual relations between a student and a former teacher at the school, or a teacher and a former student.

Meanwhile, the Hennessey’s bill required that “coercion” be proved in order for the behavior to be legally deemed assault. Anti-sexual assault advocates argued keeping that requirement would allow teachers to use grooming techniques to manipulate victims into thinking the behavior was not coerced.

To fix the perceived shortcomings, the Coalition pressed for an amendment to the bill, advanced by Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican. The amendment closed what advocates said were further loopholes for predators, and expanded the sexual assault definition to include all inappropriate relationships between people in positions of authority and teenagers, beyond teachers and students.

But Democratic Senate leadership balked at the change, arguing it was too much at once. Bradley’s amendment failed on the Senate floor, 11-13, and Hennessey’s bill advanced to the House in a 24-0 vote.

To the Coalition maintained that passing the Senate Democrats’ version without corrections would be worse than passing nothing at all. By tightening the law for some categories of abuse of authority but not all, the bill would only direct sexual predators toward other loopholes in the system, the Coalition argued.

“This was a bill about something that happened in a school in Concord. I believe it would require a great deal more research and thoughtful conversations in order to figure out how it could have been expanded in that one bill,” Hennessey said. “I didn’t want to water it down. I wanted it to be about schools.”

Now, as the Legislature hurtles through its final two weeks before it closes for business, the disagreements over its scope appear to have spelled doom.

Last week, the House failed to vote to extend its legislative deadlines to meet the COVID-19 pandemic, causing numerous pieces of legislation – including SB 572 – to die by default. And the Senate declined to add the “Howie loophole” bill to a package of sexual assault bills voted through on Tuesday.

A spokeswoman for the Senate said that the legislation was not added to the end-of-year bundles after opposition from Senate Republicans, who preferred the expanded version from Bradley.

With few opportunities left to rectify the disagreements around the bill, the process appears to be at a standstill.

On Thursday, politicians on all sides pointed fingers. Gov. Chris Sununu, who had advocated for the bill early on, blasted Senate and House Democrats for failing to compromise on the overall vision.

“There were multiple bills that could have been passed to help protect children from sexual assault and the Democrats failed to understand the importance of this issue by bringing it forward for a vote,” Sununu said in a statement Thursday.

Bradley pointed to what he said was opposition from Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, a Concord Democrat to his amendment to the bill. Feltes and most Senate Democrats voted against Bradley’s expanded amendment. 

“We want to support this, the governor called for the bill, but it’s got to be in a version that didn’t really make it worse for some kids,” Bradley said. “The version that Sen. Feltes wanted was a step backwards.”

Feltes sought to turn the blame on House Republicans, who voted against extending legislative deadlines last week.

“Months ago, on a 24-0 vote the Senate passed a bipartisan bill to address this issue. The House Republicans surprisingly, and at the request of Governor Sununu, refused to take up any Senate bills, including   this one.”

A House version of the effort, House Bill 12 4 0, was tabled by the Senate on Tuesday. That version, submitted by Rep. Katherine Prudhomme-O’Brien, goes further than Bradley or Hennessey’s attempts in the Senate.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Sen. Dan Feltes had spoken against an amendment to SB 5 72 from Sen. Jeb Bradley on the floor. Feltes voted against the amendment but did not speak against it on the floor.

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