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California bill would punish student-teacher dating

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Feb. 28, 2012: Enochs High School student Jordan Powers, 18, and James Hooker, 41, talk about their relationship during an interview in Modesto. (AP/The Modesto Bee)

A 41-year-old high school teacher exchanges thousands 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 Monday that would make such relationships a felony, even if the student is 18, and strip teachers 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, such as 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.

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. On "Dr. Phil," they were confronted by Powers' mother, Tammie. Online, they have also been criticized.

The couple maintains that, while they exchanged thousands of text messages, their relationship did not become physical until she was 18, meaning that it is completely permissible under current laws.

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, is hoping that Hooker will be arrested and is one of the biggest backers of Olsen's bill.

"I had no legal recourse whatsoever with an 18-year-old, and I believe that the teacher pursued her," said Tammie Powers, who attended a news conference along with Olsen to announce the bill. "So this will be a preventative measure."

Law enforcement officials are investigating the case. In the state, affairs between teachers and of-age students are frowned upon but not illegal. The issue is left to policies set by individual school districts.

If the relationship did not turn physical until recently, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said, there is little that authorities can do.

Christianson added that 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 county, many from parents worried that their own children may be in a similar situation.

Teacher having affairs with students over 18 are illegal in 23 states, including Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, Connecticut and Kansas, according to Olsen. In some states, it is a felony offense that forbids affairs between them at the same school, regardless of age.

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 criminal 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.