Police, advocates say Leung case illustrates the need to change N.H. sex assault laws

  • Concord teacher Howie Leung stands in Newton District Court in April. Eileen O’Grady / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 6/8/2019 10:59:02 PM

Any educator who is arrested on sexual assault charges in New Hampshire must immediately have their teaching certification suspended, according to state education laws and rules.

As soon as the Department of Education is notified of a teacher’s arrest on one of several specific charges, such as murder, endangering the welfare of a child, possession of child pornography or kidnapping, administrative action is supposed to be swift and immediate, state law says.

Yet Howie “Primo” Leung, who was arrested on April 3 and faces rape charges in Massachusetts, is still fully credentialed to teach here.

“It’s very narrowly drawn,” Grant Bosse, spokesperson for the state Department of Education, said of the state rules. Bosse would not specifically address Leung’s case or explain why department officials chose not to suspend Leung’s credentials.

The Department of Education also has the power to immediately revoke a teacher’s credentials if public health, safety or welfare is in jeopardy, but must hold a hearing within 10 days. Leung is being held in Massachusetts and no revocation of his credentials or hearing has taken place.

As specific as those rules are, there’s no law in New Hampshire making it a crime for teachers to have sexual contact with students in most cases if the student is over the age of 16, as long as it’s consensual. Instead, such conduct is viewed merely as an ethical violation.

Concord school officials were alerted Dec. 10 that Leung had “engaged in inappropriate conduct” with an 18-year-old female student, who is not the middle school student that Leung is accused of sexually assaulting. District officials said they did not report the incident with the 18-year-old to police because of the student’s age.

Instead, the school district conducted its own internal review, which raised concerns about a breach of the code of ethics for teachers but did not point clearly to any violation of state law. Concord completed its investigation and handed the information over to the Department of Education, which turned the information over to police. Leung was allowed to remain as a teacher at the high school for three and a half months between Dec. 10 and when he was put on paid administrative leave on March 27.

Police and victim advocates say the Leung case shows the need for New Hampshire to tighten its sexual assault laws to bring them in line with modern standards.

“There is never a scenario in which a high school teacher should be engaging in any sexual contact with their student, regardless of their age,” Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and a Concord city councilor, said in a statement.

“Every high school in N.H. should have a policy to address this type of abuse of power,” Grady Sexton added. “Any teacher found to be violating the law or school policies in this area should raise a red flag for the administration who should immediately refer the incident to law enforcement for investigation.”

Police agree.

“Our state laws are faulted when it comes to sexual assault,” Concord Police Lt. Sean Ford said.

Ford said teachers are in one of the most influential positions to groom students because of the amount of time they spend with them.

“Teachers are the people who probably spend the most time around children. The population teachers serve is very vulnerable to adult predators,” he said. “They are among the most vulnerable imaginable.”

Still a teacher

While Bosse would not comment directly on Leung’s case, the Concord High teacher is still listed on the Department of Education’s website as a certified New Hampshire teacher with endorsements in special education, elementary education and as a principal. His teaching certification was renewed last June.

While Leung is accused of having inappropriate sexual contact with a student in New Hampshire, including at Rundlett Middle school, he has yet to face sexual assault charges in this state.

Leung was charged in Massachusetts in April on two counts of aggravated rape of a child, one count of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14, and one count of indecent assault and battery on a child over 14.

Leung’s alleged victim, who is now 17, told police she was sexually assaulted by Leung multiple times when she was 13 and 14. She reported being inappropriately touched by Leung on several occasions at Rundlett​​​​​, both on school property and in his vehicle when he gave her rides home, according to court documents.

Leung, who was a special education teacher at Rundlett, is accused of assaulting the girl at the Fessenden School in West Newton, Mass., which provides an overnight English Language Learning summer program. Leung was the director of the program and she was an unpaid helper. The student said Leung assaulted her repeatedly in his office, in the tunnels of the school buildings where campers were playing tag and in her dorm room, according to court documents.

Police say they suspect there may be other victims in New Hampshire.

Teachers and sexual assault

Under New Hampshire law, 16 is the age of consent. Sexual contact between an adult and anyone under 16 is non-consensual and illegal. The one exception is if the parties are married. The law also specifies that power dynamics can influence whether sexual contact between two individuals of any age is considered assault.

For example, it is illegal for a therapist or any medical provider to engage in sexual contact while treating a patient and up to one year after they are done treating a patient. As recently as last year lawmakers tightened a loophole in the state’s sexual assault statutes to make it illegal for corrections officers or parole officers to have sex with any individual placed under their care, whether consent is given or not.

Otherwise, the law does not clearly define who specifically could be considered in a position of authority and therefore it is largely left up to interpretation. Teachers are not specifically mentioned.

This leaves “loopholes” in the law for students over the age of consent, said Ford, of the Concord Police Department.

The New Hampshire Department of Education Code of Ethics specifically prohibits teachers from engaging in sexual or romantic relationships with students currently enrolled in New Hampshire schools and up to 10 months after graduation.

Police say the law should hold teachers to the same standard as the code of ethics.

A teacher is at risk of losing their credentials if they are found to be “soliciting or encouraging participation in a romantic or sexual relationship, whether written, verbal or physical” with a student, according to the code of ethics, which came out late last year. It prohibits discussions between teachers and students over technology about the “physical or sexual attractiveness or the sexual activities or fantasies” of the student or educator.

Stephen Berwick, who works on mediation, neutral conferences and hearings for the Department of Education, said the language is standard for codes of conduct in many states in the U.S., which generally prohibit students from entering into relationships with teachers ranging from six to 12 months after graduation.

“It’s to prevent a situation where an educator has a student that they are grooming for a relationship, and they are watching the clock until that student turns 18 and graduates and then they approach the student having been interested in the student three or four years,” Berwick said.

The code of ethics is meant to “discourage that behavior” and put time between a student being in that environment, Berwick said.

“It’s meant to shield a student from potential harassment or worse,” he said.

Grady Sexton said the coalition is in the process of working with lawmakers to “further clarify the laws that govern our sexual assault statutes, and to make it abundantly clear that people in positions of authority over children and students will be held accountable if they prey on their vulnerability.”

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