Unbelievably, age of consent laws in Massachusetts and some others states protect abusers. Imagine that a 16-year-old girl, Julie, has a rough home life. She tries her best at school and enjoys earning praise from her teachers. She admires her science teacher, Mr. Gardner. He is a 46- year-old charismatic teacher who all the students love. Mr. Gardner routinely invites Julie to stay after class, compliments her and asks about her life. He gives Julie the attention she needs. However, after a few months, he pressures her into a sexual relationship. Because she believes they are in love, she doesn’t tell anyone.

After several months, when their relationship is found out, Julie refuses to let her parents or the school try to break them up. Unfortunately, in Massachusetts and several other states, Julie’s refusal to press charges against Mr. Gardner means that police would not be able to investigate him, and therefore, he would not be criminally charged. Because abusers like Mr. Gardner groom 16-year-old students like Julie to believe that their relationship is “consensual,” Massachusetts’ current Age of Consent law protects adults who abuse their authority and sexually abuse youth.

What is the age of consent?

The age of consent is the legal age at which teenagers can consent to sexual relations with an adult. In Massachusetts and 33 other states, that age is 16. In 6 states, the age of consent is 17, and in 11 states, it’s 18.  In some countries like Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt, the age of consent is also 18.

Unlike Massachusetts and 32 other states, Turkey evaluates the crime of sexual assault against individuals aged 15-18 separately and impose harsher legal sanctions.

What is grooming?
man with his hand on boy's shoulder

Adults sometimes act very friendly towards some children or teenagers, by giving them special attention or privileges as a way to get close to them. They then proceed to sexually abuse them. We call this behavior “grooming.” The adult might try to convince the child or teen that having sex with them is normal. However, to avoid anyone getting in the way of their special relationship, they need to keep it a secret from their friends and family.

An adult with bad intentions might say things like, “You are so mature for your age.” He or she might also say, “Don’t tell your family or friends about the special moments between us.” They could give gifts and do other things to make teenagers trust them, just like Julie’s teacher did. But here’s the thing: they’re not being genuine. These adults are trying to convince teenagers to do things that cross what should be the normal boundaries between adults and children. When these boundaries are crossed and sexual abuse happens, it’s never right, and it’s never the fault of the child or teen. Teachers, coaches, or other adults in positions of authority should never abuse the trust placed in them by parents, schools, and the community. They should not sexually abuse the children in their care.

What is “passing the trash”?

When a school finds out about a teacher behaving inappropriately, the school should report this to the authorities. But sometimes, instead of involving the police, schools quietly let the teacher go. This allows the teacher to find work at another school without a criminal record. The media calls this practice of teachers engaged in sexual misconduct moving to new schools “passing the trash.” Schools considering hiring a teacher like Mr. Gardner would not even know he has a history of sexual misconduct. Children in the new school also could be targeted for sexual abuse.

To learn more about the issue of educator sexual misconduct and “passing the trash,” check out Business Insider reporter Matt Drange’s article “An Epidemic of Sexual Abuse in Schools.”

teenage boy sitting at desk next to woman
What laws are being passed to protect students?

In the United States, 39 states and D.C. have laws that specifically make it illegal for school employees or anyone in positions of authority in schools to sexually abuse children. These laws aim to protect students from any form of sexual misconduct by those charged with caring for students and ensuring their safety. 

As of May 2023, 14 states and D.C. have passed laws to better address educator sexual misconduct. They aim to improve student safety by requiring schools to use better methods to check the backgrounds of potential employees. This ensures schools don’t hire individuals with a history of misconduct. Additionally, these laws bar schools from aiding employees involved in misconduct in securing new jobs in other schools. These laws also ban confidentiality agreements that schools use to hide information about the misconduct. These measures aim to prevent cover-ups and prioritize student well-being.

In Massachusetts in 2023, lawmakers introduced bills aimed at protecting children from sexual abuse in schools, youth organizations, and communities. The proposed laws include making sure that adults who work with kids get thorough reference checks. Also proposed is a law requiring training for employees to help them spot signs of abuse and know what to do if they suspect a problem. The bills would also help prevent schools and organizations from covering up abuse or helping abusers find new jobs.

What can you do to protect students?

Advocate for these laws in your state or country! If you are from the U.S., click here to view our Criminalizing Educator Sexual Misconduct Map. Click on your state to see if the law has been passed. If it hasn’t, you can join our States Policy Exchange to learn how you can network with other advocates to introduce these laws. You can also view our Advocacy Resources. These include model laws to ban educator sexual misconduct and to ban using age of consent as a defense in cases where an adult is in a position of authority or trust.

If you live in Massachusetts, you can send an email to your legislators. The already drafted email asks them to “Pass the Prevention Package”, including the bills to criminalize educator sexual misconduct. Click here to take part in the Action Network email campaign. Take steps to help protect students like Julie and many of our kids!