Local case at heart of changing sexual-offense law -- Gazette.Net


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A Montgomery County case is motivating state legislators to change the law so that more people who watch over children can be convicted of sexual offenses.

County prosecutors say a loophole in the fourth-degree sexual offense law forced them to drop charges in March against a teacher and coach in Montgomery County who was accused of having sex with a 16-year-old student on his track-and-field team.

The law only allows full-time, permanent employees in schools to be convicted for sexual offenses after the age of consent, 16 years old.

Although the teacher taught full time at a county middle school, he coached the track and field team at the high school part time. He since has resigned from Montgomery County Public Schools.

Four bills are working through the General Assembly that would change the law to include under the law not only full-time permanent employees at schools, but also others who supervise children. They vary in their scope — one bill includes contractors, while the most far-ranging includes volunteers, part-time employees and others who supervise children at schools, religious organizations and other institutions.

Montgomery County Del. Sam Arora began working on legislation after hearing of the case. His bill adds contractors to the scope of the law.

“When we send our children to school, we want to know they are going to be safe,” said Arora (D-Dist. 19) of Silver Spring.

Officials in Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office “cringe” when the accused cannot be convicted because of this type of loophole, said Robert Hill, an assistant state’s attorney and chief of legislative affairs for the office.

The office supports any of the bills, as long as they effectively close the existing loopholes, Hill said.

“The bottom line is that if you have somebody that is at a school program, whether they are employed full time or part time, that shouldn’t make a difference in terms of whether they are held accountable for fourth-degree sex offense,” he said.

The penalty for one count of fourth-degree sex offense is one year imprisonment and a fine of $1,000, Hill said; penalties vary depending on the case.

The change is long overdue, as the loophole only exists because of a last-minute amendment that was attached to a 2006 bill, said John R. Woolums, the director of governmental relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. The amendment was meant to comfort those who felt the law was too broad, he said.

Sex-offender laws are “numerous and complex,” and for that reason, are hard to pass, said Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“Sometimes, we sweep people in who probably should not be swept in,” said Frosh, adding that he has not yet had a chance to read the bills and could not comment on them specifically.

He gave an example of a 19-year-old man who had consensual sex with a 14-year-old girl. When the girl’s parents sued, the man had to report himself on the state’s list of sex offenders for years after, he said.

“I don’t know the facts of the case, but he is not necessarily someone I think we need to keep an eye on,” he said. “Then, we don’t get some people that we should get [under the law], and trying to balance those two objectives is a difficult one.”

Arora said he is “under no illusion” that it will be easy to pass a law. “But it is the right thing to do,” he said.

jbondeson@gazette.net