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Lawmakers consider bill that would criminalize sexual relations between educators and older students

Lawmakers consider bill that would criminalize sexual relations between educators and older students

To close what some sexual abuse survivors and advocates see as a legal loophole, Illinois lawmakers are considering a bill that would criminalize sexual relations between school authority figures and students aged 18 to 23.

In Illinois, where the age of consent is 17, educators and other school employees can be fired if they are found to be in a sexual relationship with a student of any age. But there is no avenue to press criminal charges if the student is 18 or older.  Faith Colson, who was sexually abused by her physics teacher starting when she was a junior at Schaumburg High School, said this fails to protect students who are still young and vulnerable.

Colson’s abuser was convicted of criminal sexual abuse in a case brought over a decade after the relationship between teacher and student ended. Colson was 17 at the time of the sexual relationship, which she said followed several months of grooming by the 37-year-old teacher.

“My teacher started paying special attention to me because I was kind of at the top of the class, and I thought that it was kind of a mentor relationship,” Colson said. “I had two parents at home that I knew loved me, but I think every kid you know, appreciates extra adults that are kind of pouring into their life.”

Colson said the relationship lasted into adulthood, and it wasn’t until years later that she fully realized her teacher abused his authority over her to begin an inappropriate relationship. She also realized that had the sexual relationship started a few months later, after she had turned 18, criminal charges would not have been possible.

“I think most parents don’t realize that a teacher can have sex with their 18-year-old child – like, middle of your senior year,” Colson said. “I have a January birthday — if my teacher had waited till I was 18, he could have been having sex with me, telling everyone he knew about it … He would’ve lost his job, but there’s no criminal record.”

Colson now lives in Texas, but her personal experience of sexual abuse in her home state has driven her to advocate for reforms in the Illinois General Assembly.

In 2021, she worked with legislators to pass Faith’s Law, which made changes to the processes schools must follow in instances of sexual misconduct allegations. These include adding employment history reviews as part of the hiring and vetting process of school workers and requiring notices be provided to students’ parents or guardians when there’s an alleged act of sexual misconduct.

The original version of that bill included a provision expanding the criteria for prosecuting sex offenses by educators and school authority figures to include students 18 or older, but the change failed to make it into the final version.

Since then, Colson and the sponsor of the bill before the legislature this year, Alton Republican state Rep. Amy Elik, have worked to addresses concerns raised over the measure in committee hearings, one being that school employees should not be penalized for consensual relationships with students with whom they are close in age.

A key but controversial requirement in the most recent version is that the school employee must be at least four years older than the student to be prosecuted. While Elik and Colson said they do not agree with this age difference requirement, they believe including it will help the bill get to the finish line this spring.

“Let’s just say we have a 20-year-old, let’s say a coach, who comes back to work at his or her high school and has a dating relationship with a senior in high school — previous comments were, ‘well, that’s not really the same,’” Elik said in an interview. “I will readily admit, that’s not ideal. It doesn’t necessarily protect all students. But that was our attempt at trying to address the previous concerns in the Senate.”

The idea for the compromise came from a law in Colorado that includes a similar four-year age difference requirement for charges, Elik said.

Before the House voted last month, Democratic Rep. Joyce Mason of Gurnee said she was disappointed by the age-difference amendment.

“It’s really important for everyone to know that someone who is a teacher or in a position of power with a student — that is a power and control relationship, and it doesn’t matter if they are the same age, or in some cases, the teacher is a year younger,” she said. “That should not be a consensual relationship.”

The bill that passed the House last month without a no vote would qualify sexual abuse by an educator or authority figure involving a student 18 to 23 years old as a Class A misdemeanor for the first offense and a Class 4 felony for a subsequent offense or if there is more than one victim. Abuse involving sexual penetration would be a Class 4 felony for the first offense and a Class 3 felony for a subsequent offense or with more than one victim.

Supporters of the bill, according to submitted witness slips, include the Illinois Principals Association, the Illinois Association of School Administrators and Illinois-based advocacy groups KIDS TOO and Unique Learners Unite, a nonprofit that works to improve school resources for students with disabilities.

Dan Vosnos, executive director of Unique Learners Unite, said in an interview that students with disabilities are overrepresented among students ages 18 to 23 and thus would be particularly affected by the bill.

“Faith’s Law was written, which was great, but it didn’t take into consideration this population,” Vosnos said. He said this bill helps bring students with disabilities into the conversation of school sexual abuse prevention.

“And look, by no means are we done,” Vosnos added. “We want to get something in place now, and then we need to improve it.”

Sexual assault allegations have been an ongoing issue for Chicago Public Schools, which has seen a 12% increase in complaints during the 2023-24 academic year compared with the year prior, according to data presented by the district at a February Chicago Board of Education meeting.

CPS Deputy Inspector General Amber Nesbitt, who heads the district’s sexual allegations unit, told the board that in the first two months of the year, the unit had already received 92 complaints, averaging out to three cases per school day.

In an email statement, CPS assistant press secretary Damen Alexander said the district supports the bill.

“CPS prioritizes and takes seriously its responsibility to ensure the safety, security and well-being of all students,” the statement said, adding that Chicago Board of Education policy “already prohibits sexual misconduct.”

The bill is now before the Senate, where it is sponsored by five Republicans and one Democrat.

Colson said no matter the outcome of the bill this year, she will continue to advocate for improving policies for survivors of sexual abuse and equipping schools with the resources to prevent more students from becoming victims.

“I would rather help the people who are teaching now do a better job than spend my life angry about what went wrong, because that’s not going to save anyone,” Colson said. “(Faith’s) Law passing has been super encouraging that I, as one person, can make a difference … It doesn’t undo the damage that was done to me, but I can know that having suffered what I did, I can help other kids not suffer that.”

ostevens@chicagotribune.com

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