Leung case spurs legislation to prohibit sexual contact between teachers and students 

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

Monitor staff
Published: 1/23/2020 12:57:55 PM

A bill that would criminalize sexual contact between school teachers and students is gaining political momentum, months after sexual assault charges against ex-Concord High special education teacher Howie Leung shook Concord.

Senate Bill 572 would categorize any sexual contact between a teacher, guidance counselor or other employee at a primary or secondary school and a student as sexual assault even if a student is over the age of 18.

The law would also outlaw all sexual contact between those under 18 and their coaches, employers, tutors, scout leaders or other adults in a position of authority. Presently, the state’s age of consent, 16, allows for sexual contact as long as the teen was not coerced.

The bill comes after months of pressure on lawmakers in the wake of a string of alleged incidents around Leung.

Leung was arrested in April and faces charges in Massachusetts for 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 in 2015 and 2016.

In December of 2018, 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.

Ultimately, school district officials did not report Leung to police, saying they found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing since the student was above the age of consent.

The failure of the district to report Leung’s behavior and take disciplinary action against him – up until his arrest – prompted months of outrage against school officials that has seen numerous officials leave their posts, including Concord High Principal Tom Sica.

But advocates also turned their ire to the Legislature, urging lawmakers to strengthen the state’s sexual assault law to make Leung’s alleged behavior in the parking lot a criminal offense rather than a mere violation of ethics.

At a hearing Thursday, Concord-area advocates spoke forcefully in favor of the bill.

Many decried what they called a legal loophole – allowing teachers to take advantage of their pupils by grooming teenagers into purportedly consensual interactions.

“Predators are very smart,” said Kate Frey, whose daughter, Ana Goble, told others back in middle school that she was concerned about Leung’s treatment of several of her female classmates. Sica suspended her for spreading “malicious and slanderous gossip.”

“They know how to manipulate. They know how to close ranks with people on the manipulating end. ... They manipulate so well that others just don’t see – are blinded.”

Expanding the state statute to more easily prosecute teachers and others in positions of authority is the only way to combat such manipulation, Frey continued.

Similarly, Lyn Schollett, the executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said current law fails to recognize that kissing is predatory behavior that adults use to groom young people for abuse and that school personnel have a unique level of access to and control over students.

“This bill addresses a common, purposeful and deeply dangerous behavior of sex offenders where they intentionally seek out environments with children, in which they have authority over children, to sexually abuse them, and then use that authority to ensure that child will remain silent,” she said. “As a society, we owe it to all children who we should be protecting to keep dangerous predators away from them.”

Others came armed with statistics.

Joy Barrett, chief executive officer of the Granite State Children’s Alliance, said her organization’s Child Advocacy Centers are at the front lines of sexual abuse. The centers arrange interviews and resources for children who have been abused. Of the average 2,100 children seen by CACs each year, 60% involved cases of sexual abuse, Barrett said.

Jennifer Pierson, executive director of the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire in Concord, said in 2018 her agency served 1,595 victims of domestic violence, sexual violence, stalking and human trafficking, child abuse in Merrimack County.

“Please believe me when I tell you that child predators will find opportunities to gain access to children and will seek jobs and volunteer opportunities that will allow them that access,” she said.

The arguments have met receptive ears. A joint effort by Democratic Sen. Martha Hennessey of Hanover and Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro is now moving forward with strong support in the state senate.

“It is our job to ensure New Hampshire schools are safe places to learn and that our students are not subject to inappropriate behavior or sexual assault by the adults placed in a position of authority over them,” Hennessey said in a statement.

An amendment to Hennessey’s bill, supported by Bradley, would reorganize the definition of “sexual contact.” Where currently the law applies to intentional touching of genitalia and other “intimate parts” of the victim, and is limited to conduct “for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification,” the amendment would include any touching for “the humiliation of the person being touched.”

The amendment would also remove the requirement of coercion in cases involving adults with authority over minors. Under the proposed change, the very existence of a power dynamic between the adult and the person under 18 would make the sexual contact illegal – whether coercion could be proved or not.

To Schollett, that change – removing coercion – is essential to combating the grooming methods used by abusers to make their interactions seem romantic and voluntary.

“Coersion is not necessary because of the power differentials we see between teachers and students or faith leaders and teenagers,” “Leaving coercion in there requires prosecutors to prove an added step and not just the power discrepancy in that relationship.”

The bill has a long road ahead of it, facing work sessions and a vote on the Senate floor before it can advance to the House.

But Gov. Chris Sununu has already voiced his support. On Thursday he sent a letter to Senate leadership Thursday urging the body to pass it.

“By the very nature of a person’s position of authority over a child, any sexual act against that child is coercive in nature,” Sununu said. “No child is freely able to give consent in cases where a person has authority or control over them.”

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

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