FRANKFORT, Ky. – Reacting to the case of a high school band teacher accused of having sex with a student, a Kentucky lawmaker has become the latest state legislator to propose changing a law governing the age of consent.
J.R. Gray was disturbed to learn that teachers break no criminal laws by having sex with students, as long as the student is at least 16 years old and a willing participant.
That scenario played out in Gray's hometown of Benton last month when a band teacher was accused of having an affair with a teenage student. Gray, a Democrat from western Kentucky, says he now plans to file a bill as soon as next week that would make it illegal for a teacher or anyone else in a position of special trust to have consensual sex with someone under 18.
"My first reaction was disbelief," Gray said. "It's an indictment on Kentucky. It's an indictment on the whole country."
Sexual misconduct allegations led states across the country to take action against the teaching licenses of 2,570 educators from 2001 through 2005. Those were the findings of a seven-month Associated Press investigation, the results of which were published last month. Young people were the victims in at least 1,801 of the cases, and more than 80 percent of those were students.
There are about 3 million public school teachers nationwide.
In Kentucky, officials handled nearly 100 instances of teacher sexual misconduct over the five-year-period the AP reviewed, ranging from minor violations like using sexual language to more serious, criminal acts such as inappropriate touching and even sodomy and rape.
Gray said the legislation he is proposing would allow prosecutors to charge teachers with statutory rape if they have consensual sex with 16- or 17-year-old students.
"There's just been a rash of these cases across the nation," he said. "That, coupled with the AP stories and the case involving the band director, made me realize something had to be done."
Several states have enacted similar measures over the past six years, including Alaska, Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas and Washington. Lawmakers in New York and South Carolina are considering following suit. The Education Commission of the States said Ohio and Maine have had laws criminalizing such conduct since 1994 and 1995, respectively.
Only eight states have set 18 as the age of consent for both men and women, said Jennifer Boyter, senior policy analyst for The Council of State Governments in Lexington. In the vast majority of states, Boyter said, 16 is the legal age of consent. In two states — Iowa and South Carolina — the age of consent is 14 for girls.
Large numbers of teens reported sexual activity in a study released earlier this month by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The research found that 47 percent of all high schools students reported having sex at least once and 63 percent said they have engaged in sex by the spring semester of their senior year.
Gray's primary concern is with adults abusing their positions of authority to draw teens into sexual relationships. His bill, however, exempts married couples, even when an underage spouse is married to an adult.
"A person has to be 18 to buy cigarettes, 18 to enter the armed services, 21 to buy alcoholic beverages," Gray said. "I think we're shortchanging those young people when we don't have this 18 year restriction on consensual sex."
No one has yet offered any public opposition to the proposed legislation, including the Kentucky Education Association, which represents 35,000 teachers and other public school employees.
"We don't have a position on the bill because we haven't seen it," said Charles Main, spokesman for the group. "Obviously, we encourage, in the strongest possible terms, good conduct between teachers and their students. It's too important a relationship to be abused."
Prosecutors, unable to press felony charges against Marshall County High School band teacher Michael Colvett, leveled a misdemeanor count of unlawful transaction with a minor for allegedly encouraging the girl to disobey her parents.
Kentucky State Police Detective Dean Patterson said in an affidavit that Colvett continued to exchange e-mail and text messages with the girl and had "at least one sexual encounter" with her after her parents advised him to stay away.
Colvett, who is on administrative leave pending the outcome of the case, pleaded not guilty to the charge last month. Colvett, through his attorney, Mark Bryant of Paducah, declined to comment on the case or the legislation.