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Editorial: Lawmakers must take strong action against sexual abuse of students

Editorial: Lawmakers must take strong action against sexual abuse of students

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The current session for the Nebraska Legislature is moving along swiftly, with major debates still ahead on key issues such as tax relief and business incentives. But it’s vital that lawmakers not let the session slip away without making time to take strong action addressing the sexual assault and grooming of Nebraska students.

A key step is creating the offense of sexual assault of a student. At present, it’s not illegal for an educator to have sex with a student who is at least 16, although such action can result in revocation of the person’s teaching certificate.

At least 22 states, including Iowa, Wyoming and Colorado, have laws making it a crime for a person of trust or authority to have sex with a child, The World-Herald’s Joe Dejka reports. Those laws vary in penalties and the age range covered.

Creating such a penalty in Nebraska is important, Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Cheryl Logan told The World-Herald, because it would “give teeth” to state law by providing school districts with greater leverage to curb improper interactions with students.

Since the beginning of 2014, at least 56 certified Nebraska educators were caught having inappropriate communication or sexual contact with students, The World-Herald found last year after pulling together a wide array of state data. The victimization included at least 74 students or recent high school graduates. In 41 cases, educators had sex or sexual contact with students.

Last week, a former Omaha elementary school principal agreed to a plea deal after being charged with child abuse for failing to report suspected molestation of students by a teacher. That teacher is now serving 40 to 65 years in prison for molesting six students, ages 6 and 7.

Four Nebraska state senators have introduced separate bills this session to create the offense of sexual assault of a student. On Thursday, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the proposals.

The state must always proceed carefully whenever creating a new criminal penalty and deciding the particulars. But action is unquestionably needed on this issue, given the inherent harm to young people as well as the scale of the problem as shown by World-Herald reporting.

In addition, State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has introduced legislation to require all school districts in Nebraska to create a local policy prohibiting sexual contract between educators and students. This, too, is needed action. Some districts currently have a policy, but others don’t.

Lathrop notes that no state statute can cover all possible improper actions by educators, so school districts would have flexibility to define out-of-bounds behavior as they see fit and as new developments warrant over time. His proposal also would require that suspected misbehavior be reported to various agencies including the state Department of Education.

Nebraska lawmakers have a firm obligation to enact needed legislation on this issue before the current session ends in April.

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