New law delivers tools to root predators out of schools
Senate Bill 155 gives sharper teeth to efforts to protect students from sexual conduct and predatory behaviors.
The new law prohibits for the first time sexual conduct by all education provider employees, coaches, volunteers, agents and contractors toward all students. Although SB 155 covers just about any adult acting on a school’s behalf, it’s chief aim is to help schools get rid of dangerous employees and to create a record of their inappropriate actions.
The new law clarifies the definition of student and forces reporting of adult contacts with a student that are sexual in nature. The far-reaching legislation brings Oregon law in line with federal rules as well as closes loopholes in an earlier “Don’t pass the trash” law that attempted to keep problem employees from switching districts to avoid complaints and investigations.
Among its provisions, SB 155 makes it illegal for employees of an Oregon school, education service district or charter school to have sexual conduct with any student until 90 days after that student’s graduation. The law excludes post-secondary institutions.
Existing law prohibited school employees from sexual conduct with students but did not fully define student. SB 155 includes any person receiving services from an education provider, and it goes into greater detail on the definitions of sexual conduct.
The law does not include criminal penalties, but it gives schools greater ability to remove employees or other agents whose conduct might be difficult to prosecute and to mark that person as a danger.
“We believe students are in a vulnerable position,” said Sen. Arnie Roblan, who helped spearhead the law. “There is no time in which a person who has authority over another should have the ability to manipulate that in an inappropriate way. “
Roblan, D-Coos Bay, said sections of the law were in response to the Mitch Whitehurst case at Portland Public Schools. Misconduct allegations against Whitehurst dated to the 1983-84 school year but were not investigated or were kept confidential.
The old law’s tests made it difficult to remove employees who were engaged in sexual conduct with students 18 and older. The new law strengthens the mechanisms to identify and prevent sexual behavior, including predatory and grooming behavior.
Child abuse reports go to law enforcement for criminal investigation, but the police only act if there is evidence of a crime. Often sexual grooming-type behavior doesn’t rise to the level of a crime.
SB 155 adds the Department of Human Services to investigate all schoolchildren-related sexual conduct and sex abuse complaints. Before SB 155, DHS could only investigate if it involved abuse of a child in the suspect’s home.
Teacher sexual conduct reports must be investigated by the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission.
TSPC already prohibited sex with students. According to TSPC Deputy Director Trent J. Danowski, there is no such thing as “consensual sex” between a licensed educator and a student.
SB 155, however, requires an immediate investigation and a report to the education provider within 90 days. The reporting prevents negotiated exits, where the accused agrees to go away if the investigation is dropped and the employer agrees not to mention it.
SB 155 also sets up the Oregon Department of Education to investigate reports that involve nonlicensed school employees. ODE is working to create more transparent reporting of all investigations.
ODE Government and Legal Affairs Manager Emily Nazarov said ODE is hiring staff and rulemaking will likely take place in the spring for July implementation.
The law includes money for investigators at DHS, ODE and TSPC.
In response to OSBA advocacy, the new law assures districts can act according to existing contracts to remove an employee before an agency-level investigation is complete if there is clear evidence of wrongdoing or danger to students.
Sen. Rob Wagner, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said his role as a Lake Oswego School Board member influenced his work on the legislation.
“The No. 1 thing we do as a school board is the promise that when you send your kids to school there are the supports they need to feel safe so they can learn,” he said.
OSBA is revising its model sample policies to reflect the new law and any administrative rules adopted by the State Board of Education.
OSBA Policy Services Director Peggy Holstedt said the law’s provisions would make it faster and easier to root out problem employees.
“As a former human resources director for a district, I would have loved to have this law,” she said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA