The second part of the 2009-10 session of the Georgia Legislature opens Monday. Columbia County lawmakers and county commissioners met this week to compare notes leading into the session, in which the state's budget is expected to be the priority.
Shrinking tax collections likely will lead lawmakers to cut some $700 million from the state's budget. Schools, whose budgetary hit had not been as hard as many state agencies, are anxiously awaiting their turn at the whipping post.
Aside from all the budget concerns, however, lawmakers will have one more important school issue to take care of immediately: eliminating the loophole that makes it legal for teachers and some students to have sex.
Most people likely would be surprised to hear that such a legal gap exists - but it does. If the student is older than age 16 and a willing participant, there's no law preventing a sexual relationship with a teacher.
That was the ruling last year from Georgia's Supreme Court. It threw out the conviction of former Columbia County teacher and coach Melissa Chase, who had a single consensual sexual encounter with a 16-year-old Harlem High School student and was given a 10-year prison sentence.
Chase's attorney's accurately pointed out that a rewrite of the law a couple of years earlier failed to omit consent as a defense in the case of teachers, who under the particular law are equated with prison guards in that they hold authority over others.
Just as an inmate cannot legally give his or her consent to sex with a guard, so should high-school students not be able legally to consent to sex with a teacher. The law hiccuped in the rewrite, however, and the Supreme Court found the gap large enough to release Chase from prison.
Since then, at least one Georgia judge has dropped charges against a teacher for having a consensual relationship with a student, citing that court ruling. With no law standing in the way, only educators' ethics laws and county policies prevent such relationships.
That should change quickly, however. Two lawmakers have already pre-filed legislation eliminating the teacher loophole in the law, specifying that consent cannot be used as a defense in a sexual relationship with a student. To prevent an awkward intrusion into the lives of adults in a college setting, both bills specify that they apply only to teachers and students in elementary and secondary education.
Budget concerns, naturally, will be all-consuming this session. But lawmakers certainly can, and must, find the time to slam this loophole shut.
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