While Educator Sexual Misconduct is frowned upon, and schools can choose to fire school employees who engage in sexual relationships with students, the school employees cannot always be criminally charged if the student is over that state’s age of consent. Thirty-three (33) states have an age of consent of 16 years, six (6) states have an age of consent of 17 years, and eleven (11) states have an age of consent of 18 years (Abboud 2020).
“Educators are one of the main representations of authority that children and teenagers encounter, beyond their parents. An established age of consent, as we see delineated throughout the states, maintains the line between a student and someone who is in a position of authority. Moreover, teachers and school staff are assumed to have power over students, no matter what age, and therefore the ability of the relatively powerless student to give consent is assumed to be impaired in such relationships.” (Abboud 2020)
Over 75% of states have now passed legislation specifically outlawing educator sexual misconduct, recognizing that even if a student is over the age of consent, the educator is in a position of authority over the student and the student cannot consent to such a relationship.
A statutory analysis of these laws by Abboud, et al. including data collected between 2010 and 2017, documented that the number of applicable statutes criminalizing “educator sexual misconduct” had nearly doubled from 15 states to 29. Our review shows that currently thirty-nine (39) states and the District of Columbia have adopted statutes that specifically prohibit the sexual abuse of children by individuals working in or associated with schools and by persons in positions of authority that include school personnel.
While the term “educator sexual misconduct” is the “catch-all” term used to describe these statutes, the types of school-related adults prohibited from engaging in sexual contact with students vary greatly. For example, Alaska’s statute simply states: “…a person who holds a certificate who is employed by a school district…” Wisconsin’s statute is equally brief: “…a school staff person or a person who works or volunteers with children.”
Several states specifically describe the types of personnel their law targets. These may include: administrator, principal, vice-principal, teacher substitute teacher, student teacher, school health services provider, school safety officer, coach. Mississippi’s statute goes further to include: counselor, physician, psychiatrist, psychologist, minister, priest, physical therapist, chiropractor, scout leader.
Some states refer to licensed school employee while others include unlicensed school employees and contracted employees. Three states, including Nevada, New Mexico and Vermont include school volunteers and six, including Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah, extend prohibitions to private and public schools.
Statutes in seventeen (17) states are educator-specific only; eighteen (18) include both educator-specific sexual misconduct and misconduct committed by persons in positions of authority who provide supervisory or disciplinary authority over a student. Five (5) states include only the position of authority and do not mention schools at all. Eleven (11) states criminalize adult/child sexual relationships in general but have no educator-specific sexual misconduct law.
Nearly half the states with educator-specific-sexual misconduct statutes include a “same school” criterion, defined as “a school at which the student is enrolled and the defendant is employed, assigned, or volunteers.” Mississippi and Ohio do not stipulate that the student and defendant must be in the same school. New Jersey expands the prohibition to any “actor who has supervisory or disciplinary power over the victim by virtue of the actor’s legal, professional or occupational status.”
The range of punishments for violating these statutes varies widely. For example, they include in-house punishment to imprisonment from six months to life, for misdemeanor or felonies and impose fines ranging from none to $300,000, though $10,000 to $20,000 is the typical amount. Statutes in 23 states require individuals who violate these statutes to register as a sex offender; others leave the decision to the courts.
In a few states, including Alabama, California, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Tennessee, efforts to criminalize educator-specific sexual misconduct and/or sexual misconduct by persons in positions of authority have been influenced by Age of Consent laws and the loophole they provide for those motivated to sexually abuse youth.
See the legend below the map for the meaning of the colors. Click on the orange states to see the laws criminalizing educator sexual misconduct and punishment details for each state.
 Abboud, M. et al., “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Statutory Analysis.” Criminal Justice Policy Review, 2020. Vol.31 (1) 133-153.
Criminalizing Educator Sexual Misconduct
◼︎ No current legislation criminalizing Educator Sexual Misconduct
◼︎ Successfully passed legislation criminalizing Educator Sexual Misconduct
Whether you identify as a victim, survivor, or as someone working through the trauma of sexual abuse, know that you are not alone, you are not to blame for what happened, and support is available to help you on your journey to healing.
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