SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – A 41-year-old high school teacher exchanges a flood of text messages with his student, then leaves his wife and three children to date her. The couple then goes on national TV, saying their relationship didn’t become physical until she turned 18.
In California, there’s nothing illegal about what they did.
Now, a lawmaker is hoping to change that with a bill rolled out Tuesday that would make such relationships a felony, even if the student is 18, and strip school employees of their pensions and retiree health care if they are convicted.
To prevent teachers from “grooming” students for relationships when they become adults, the bill would also criminalize seductive communication, including sexual text messages.
“Our hope is that that will be a pretty strong and painful deterrent and will cause someone to think twice before starting an inappropriate, unethical relationship with a student,” said Republican Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, the bill’s sponsor.
Teachers would get back whatever contributions they had made to the public pension system.
If the bill is successful, California would join 23 other states in banning student-teacher affairs regardless of age, according to Olsen. These include Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, Connecticut and Kansas. In some states, such affairs are a felony.
Olsen is from Modesto, a city about 75 miles south of Sacramento where teacher James Hooker and student Jordan Powers struck up their relationship at Enochs High School. Powers has dropped out, but Hooker’s 17-year-old daughter still attends.
The announcement of their relationship made national headlines. In interviews for the “Dr. Phil” show and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” the couple can be seen holding hands and exchanging smiles.
Powers’ mother, Tammie, confronted the couple on “Dr. Phil” and accused Hooker of brainwashing her daughter. Web commenters have also poured on criticism.
The couple maintains that, while they met when Jordan was 14, their relationship did not become physical until she was of age, meaning that it is permissible under current laws. California’s age of consent is 18.
Hooker and Powers could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Powers moved out of her house, and Hooker’s phone is disconnected.
The elder Powers has been touring national talk shows raising the alarm about such relationships.
At news conference with Olsen to announce the bill, Powers said she welcomes the media attention that has surrounded her daughter’s case and vowed to get similar legislation passed in every state.
“I had no legal recourse whatsoever with an 18 year old, and I believe that the teacher pursued her,” she said. “So this will be a preventative measure.”
Law enforcement officials are investigating the case.
Affairs between teachers and of-age students are frowned upon in California but not illegal. The issue is left to policies set by individual school districts.
In the state’s largest district, Los Angeles Unified, the code of conduct for teachers prohibits any communication between teachers and students that is not school-related, according to district spokeswoman Gayle Pollard-Terry.
If the relationship did not turn physical until recently, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said, there is little they can do.
Christianson said his time in the high-tech crimes unit showed him the importance of cracking down on inappropriate communication between children and adults.
“We know for a fact that pedophiles are predators, and they groom their victims long before they victimize them,” he said.
There’s no way to know how often these teacher-student relationships develop.
Since her daughter’s story broke, Powers said she received more than 5,000 emails from all over the country, many from parents worried that their own children may be in a similar situation.
Olsen’s bill is one of several measures Republicans are proposing to make it easier for school districts to fire and punish educators who engage in inappropriate behavior.
One of the measures would strip convicted felons of their state pensions, a bill inspired by the recent case of a former Los Angeles teacher charged with 23 counts of lewd acts against children.
Olsen, who has three children of her own, said teachers need to face harsher punishments when they violate the community’s trust by seducing their students.
“We think that when we send our kids to school, these are safe and secure positive learning environments,” she said.
Associated Press writer Christina Hoag in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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