After Concord case, lawmakers work to close “loophole” around teenage sexual assault law

Monitor staff
Published: 10/29/2019 5:11:42 PM

The basic understanding that teachers should not have sexual contact with students is driving new legislation to close a loophole in New Hampshire law.

Lawmakers and Gov. Chris Sununu are coalescing around a change to the state’s sexual assault statute to eliminate allowable sexual contact between school staff and students who are over the age of 16 in the wake of a string of alleged incidents by a former Concord High School special education teacher.

In a pair of proposed bills submitted to the Office of Legislative Services this month, Republican and Democratic lawmakers are aiming to simplify the statute to strike out ambiguity and make it easier to prosecute teachers, coaches and others for relationships with those they oversee.

Sens. Martha Hennessey and Jeb Bradley, a Hanover Democrat and Wolfeboro Republican respectively, have filed identical legislation to address the loophole. Bradley’s bill came at the request of the governor’s office, he said.

“This bill shores up our law to make it abundantly clear that people in positions of authority cannot have any type of inappropriate relationship with school children,” Concord Sen. Dan Feltes, a co-sponsor of the effort, said Tuesday.

The proposed law comes after months of pressure by advocates on state senators and the governor’s office to put a bill forward. And it was directly prompted by the alleged actions of former Concord teacher Howie Leung, Hennessey said.

Despite an alleged pattern of inappropriate behavior between Leung and students, district officials did not report Leung to police, saying they found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Several female students reported seeing Leung kissing an 18-year-old high school senior in a car outside the school. Because the student was above the age of consent, the district viewed Leung’s action as a violation of the state’s code of ethics for teachers, but not a crime.

Leung remained on the job for 3½ months before he was put on paid administrative leave. He was arrested a week later on April 3 and extradited to Massachusetts on charges of aggravated rape of a child. The special education teacher allegedly took teenage girls from New Hampshire to a summer camp in Massachusetts and sexually assaulted one of them. The victim in the case was identified by police after they were notified by state education officials and began investigating.

Speaking Tuesday, Feltes criticized Concord officials’ response. “I don’t think there’s any dispute at this point that the district didn’t handle this properly,” he said.

Bradley highlighted the efforts of Ana Goble, the former Rundlett Middle School student who was suspended by then-Rundlett Principal Tom Sica for spreading “malicious and slanderous gossip” after raising concerns about Leung four years ago.

“I just wanted to credit the young lady who came forward and had the courage to go through the system the way she did, and the courage to come back after being rebuffed initially,” Bradley said. “This is how a lot of these situations get dealt with – because of the courage of the victim to come forward.”

Hennessey said the changes would “ensure New Hampshire schools are safe places to learn” and help prevent “potential grooming or sexual assault perpetrated by adults who are in a position of authority” over students.

“I look forward to working with my House and Senate colleagues this session to close that dangerous loophole,” she said in a statement Monday.

The new language seeks to make the state’s criminal law clearer.

Presently under New Hampshire law, sexual contact between a supervisor adult and a teenager aged 16 to 17 counts as assault only if the supervisor “uses this authority to coerce the victim to submit.”

That opens a loophole allowing behavior that is perceived to be consensual to be exempted from sexual assault laws, victims’ advocates say.

The proposed law would eliminate that requirement, making any sexual contact between supervisors and teens illegal – whether or not the teen claims it is consensual. It would extend that definition to felonious sexual assault.

And it would change the definition of sexual contact itself. Currently, sexual contact must be “reasonably construed as being for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification of the person in the position of authority, or the humiliation of the person being touched.”

The new law would strike all of that, merely requiring the act to include intentional touching of genitalia or intimate parts of the teenager’s body – even if sexual gratification of the adult or humiliation of the teenager were not proved.

The changes are necessary because teenagers are often not aware they were manipulated by a superior until years later, advocates say. Predators can exploit their victims’ uncertain feelings and the ambiguity of the law.

“A 16- and 17-year-old student should never be subjected to the sexual advances of a trusted adult that is working or volunteering in their school,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

“It’s time to amend several laws that pertain to sexual assault in New Hampshire, including this glaring loophole that was exploited by Howie Leung,” she said.

New Hampshire’s law is weaker compared to some surrounding states.

For example, in Massachusetts, the laws addressing rape and sexual assault in cases of a position of authority are not contingent on a coercive relationship of power. In fact, the Bay State’s laws do not even mention relationships of power.

Rather, “indecent assault” covers all acts of unwanted sexual contact over the age of 14, and with penalties up to five years.

For one Concord advocate, a change to New Hampshire’s law is long overdue. Tina Smith is a survivor of sexual assault, whose traumas have driven her passions for reform.

Many still misunderstand the complex dynamics at play between an abuser and a teenaged victim, she said.

“The fact that they feel certain ages are consenting – that also shows that they don’t understand what’s going on with adolescence,” said Smith, who now works as a pediatric nurse. “Cognitively, where their brain is at, their hormones are at, where everything is at.”

“It has to be changed,” she added of the law.

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