TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Some Florida lawmakers want to increase the penalties for educators convicted of sexually abusing students by doubling the potential prison sentence to 30 years for some offenses.
Florida House Bill 485 and Senate Bill 698 would increase potential penalties for various crimes when an education authority figure over the age of 18 – including teachers, coaches, counselors and volunteers – sexually victimizes students under the age of 18.
Lewd and lascivious battery is currently a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years, for example, but would be upgraded to a first-degree felony with a potential 30-year prison sentence for education figures. Third-degree felony molestation, which currently carries a five-year prison sentence, would turn into a second-degree felony with a maximum 15-year prison sentence for educators, the Sun-Sentinel reports.
The idea for tougher penalties for pedophile educators came from students at Armwood High School in Hillsborough County participating in an “It Ought to be a Law” program, according to the news site.
“It’s disturbing; we’ve seen it across the state,” Rep. Jake Raburn, sponsor of the bill, said of the problem with teachers sexually abusing students in recent years. “Parents trust teachers, kids trust teachers and to have these individuals preying on our children is unbelievable.”
Across the country teachers are arrested literally every day for inappropriate sexual relationships with students. U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey released a statement recently citing at least 130 such cases in the United States so far this year.
In Florida’s Broward and Palm Beach counties, more than a dozen teachers since 2010 have been arrested for having sex with students. Many received sentences ranging from house arrest to 15 years in prison, the Sun-Sentinel reports.
The proposed bills are among a number of measures introduced in the Florida legislature this year aimed at cracking down on those who sexually abuse children, several of which were signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this month.
Those new laws fixed a number of problems and loopholes with the way the state handles violent sexual predators, and increased the mandatory sentence for those convicted of rape or torture of children, seniors or individuals with disabilities to 50 years.
The approved legislation also eliminated the statute of limitations on criminal prosecution for lewd or lascivious offenses committed upon or in the presence of children under the age of 16.
Experts weigh in
While some educator sexual misconduct experts have applauded the proposed increased penalties for pedophile educators as a step in the right direction, others believe that the higher penalties won’t make much of a difference.
Andrea Clemens, an spokeswoman for the advocacy group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation, told My Fox Orlando that strong penalties are “critical” for addressing a problem that’s reaching epidemic proportions in the U.S.
“This is an extremely important issue to tackle. There’s an epidemic right now. Nearly one in ten students will experience some form of sexual misconduct by a school employee by the time they are a senior in high school. That’s nearly 4.5 million students,” she said.
“I applaud the Florida legislature for increasing (the penalties). This is so important because without strong laws and penalties in place children remain at risk. The deterrent stakes need to be set high so that potential predators might think twice before offending,” she said.
“What’s equally important, I think, is legislation that’s enacted to create a strong barrier between minors and predators, so they don’t even get into schools,” she said, pointing to Pennsylvania’s Senate Bill 46, which would require more stringent background checks for school employees and outlaw the practice commonly known in the education world as “passing the trash.”
Passing the trash refers to the all-too-common practices of school administrators ditching sexually abusive teachers by accepting a resignation in exchange for a letter of recommendation. Many educators who have secured the secret deals have gone on to repeat their heinous behavior with other students in other districts.
Federal legislation introduced by Sen. Toomey last year would essentially accomplish the same thing as Pennsylvania’s PA 46, but for all schools across the nation. That legislation passed the House of Representatives by unanimous vote last year, but has stalled in the Democrat-controlled Senate due to objections from friends in the teachers unions.
In Florida, state Sen. Kelli Stargel, sponsor of SB 698, believes the state must pass the tougher penalties to send a message to educators who abuse students that “there are boundaries and you cannot cross them,” but others don’t believe the measure will work as intended.
The Sun-Sentinel Editorial Board recently explained how the law might result in unreasonably harsh prison sentences that aren’t justified by the crime.
“The threat of longer prison sentences rarely deters someone from acting on their compulsions. Far better that we give judges discretion in sentencing those who have sex with minors,” the newspaper opined.
“Perhaps you, too, know the story of a teacher who has fallen in love with a student just a few years younger. No matter the circumstances, such behavior is wrong. It’s a crime. Severe punishment is called for.
“But should the teacher face 30 years in prison? Better that we reserve such sentences for those who are much more menacing, who target students for sexual abuse.
“After all, there are foolish teachers – and there are predator teachers.”
Howard County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein seems to agree.
“Will these bills make a difference? Absolutely not,” he told the Sun Sentinel. “Not to the people who are in the throes of what they perceive as a relationship … Just like the death penalty is no deterrent for a guy who robs a 7-11 store. It has no effect on whether he will pull the trigger.”
With the increased penalties recently approved in Florida for violent sex offenders and those who sexually abuse children, the Sun-Sentinel questions whether singling out teachers is even necessary.
The newspaper points to two high profile cases in which educators allegedly committed heinous sex acts against students. In one case the alleged perpetrator faces up to life in prison, the other could be sentenced to up to 220 years behind bars.
“Is there really any doubt that punishments for teachers, or anyone else caught preying on children, are not tough enough in Florida?” the Sun-Sentinel asked.
Florida’s HB 485 passed the House Judiciary Committee in a unanimous 16-0 vote March 21, and is currently pending. SB 698 was referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this month.