Could a sexual relationship between pupil and teacher be legal?

By Lindsey Connell - bio | email | Twitter

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) -  "People just need to know that when they send their kids to school, they're actually fair game for any pervert who wants to use them for sexual gratification."

These statements are from a Columbus woman who asked WTVM not to reveal her identity or her daughter's identity.

"I found out a little over two years ago that my daughter whose now 21 had been involved in a four year sexual relationship with a Muscogee County educator. It was her soccer coach in high school," she said.

The mother says the coach waited until the victim turned 16 to have sex with her. Finally, the victim came forward with the allegations in 2009 and the educator was investigated. WTVM has obtained state documents supporting the mother's story. The educator is question was never charged.

Neither the District Attorney nor the Columbus Police Department would discuss specific cases with WTVM but they each referred to a law that's on the books in Georgia regarding consent- the 2009 Supreme Court decision Chase versus State.

"It directly affected one investigation we had initiated involving a teacher and student because of this ruling by the Supreme Court. We could not make a case because of the question of consent," said Lieutenant John McMichael who heads up the Columbus Police Department's Sex Crimes Unit.

"Before the Chase decision, we were able to prosecute as a felony any sexual relationship between an instructor and a student. Since the Chase decision, we cannot prosecute any case where consent would be a defense if the student is 16 years or older which would include high school students. Our hands were tied by the Chase decision and we were unable to prosecute any of those cases where the student was 16 years or older if consent would be a defense to it," District Attorney Julia Slater told News Leader 9.

While he was not prosecuted, the accused soccer coach voluntarily surrendered his teaching license with the state. So did Claire Marie Richards, the former Jordan High School teacher at the center of an alleged sex scandal involving one of her teenage male students.

The mother of four was arrested in December of 2008 and faces more than 20 charges. Her case has yet to go before a Grand Jury and she is out of jail on bond. Could Chase vs. State be the reason why Richards' case is stalled? Her lawyer, Richard Hagler, says with the way he reads the law, Richards' case should be thrown out all together.

"First of all, she has entered a not guilty plea and has maintained that she is not guilty all along and we continue to maintain that she is not guilty and believe that the reason for the state not seeking an indictment prior to this time is the weak evidence involved in her case- it's more allegations without substantial evidence to provide for it," Hagler said.

Local legislators say they've been working to correct the shortcomings in the law when it comes to the issue of consent. Georgia State Senator Seth Harp (District 29) pioneered House Bill 571 which he says has already passed the General Assembly and has made its way to Governor Sonny Perdue's desk.

"This bill takes the law and says the law is, if you are in fact in a position of authority over someone and have sex with them, you have committed the crime of sexual abuse and the definition is very well spelled out in the bill. It is very encompassing but if you had a scenario of where a teacher has a relationship with a student, this bill now criminalizes that and consent is not a defense because of the fact that you enjoy a position of authority over somebody. A teacher who has sex with a student in their school is a very serious felony and that person will be in very deep trouble," Senator Harp revealed.

But according to the District Attorney, any new law will not impact any cases that fall under old laws.

"If the law gets changed, the law would be changed from that date forward. We can't prosecute someone for breaking a law that didn't exist at the time of the act," Slater explained.

That leaves our mother who asked to remain anonymous wondering if justice will ever be served for her daughter.

"It's basically ruined us as a family. She's going to carry this burden for the rest of her life and so will we as a family. We do not want this to happen to any other student in Muscogee County or anywhere else. People just need to know the dangers that are out there."

Dangers legislators say they've tackled head on.

"It closed up a lot of loopholes- that was the whole purpose of the bill to close the loopholes down. The object of this bill was to protect the children of Georgia from people in authority or sexual predators and frankly, sexual predators are not welcome in Georgia," Senator Harp added.

A spokesman for Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue says the Governor has not yet announced his decision on House Bill 571.

WTVM is told Governor Perdue has looked at the legislation once and he is expected to look at it again and make a decision fairly soon.

According to his spokesman, the law would be effective immediately upon his signature.

The Columbus Police Department is encouraging victims to come forward so their cases can be properly investigated.

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