Court: Laws Against Trysts With Students OK
February 21, 2007
By ALAINE GRIFFIN, Courant Staff Writer
When a former New Haven teacher last fall challenged the constitutionality of state laws prohibiting school employees from having sexual relations with students, victim advocates kept a close eye on the state Supreme Court, hoping it would reject the argument that such laws infringe on the right to privacy.
Tuesday's high court ruling, in which the justices said sexual acts "between individuals who are situated in an inherently coercive relationship, such as the teacher-student relationship" are not guaranteed the right of sexual privacy, came as a relief to James F. Papillo, the state's victim advocate.
"It's just ridiculous to think that someone would raise that defense," Papillo said.
Richard Emanuel, the lawyer representing teacher Van Clifton McKenzie-Adams, who was sentenced in 2004 to seven years in prison for having sex with two New Haven high school students, argued before the Supreme Court last year that state law prohibiting school employees from having sexual relations with students was overly broad.
The reason, he argued, is that the law does not require prosecutors to show that a student was coerced by a teacher's power or authority, or that a student had any professional contact with the teacher in question.
During his arguments, Emanuel focused on consensual relationships between teachers and students who have reached the age of 16, Connecticut's legal age of sexual consent. Emanuel argued that consensual sex between two people of legal age elevates the teacher-student case to constitutional privacy proportions.
Both students who had sex with McKenzie-Adams testified during his trial that their relations with him were consensual. One told jurors that McKenzie-Adams, who was 40 at the time, "wasn't forcing me into anything I didn't want to do." One student was 16, the other was 17.
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, representing the state before the Supreme Court, disagreed, saying students cannot give genuine consent because a teacher is in a position of power and authority over the student.
In their ruling Tuesday, the justices said, "In light of the disparity of power inherent in the teacher-student relationship, we conclude that both victims were situated in an inherently coercive relationship with the defendant wherein consent might not easily be refused."
The court rejected Emanuel's argument that the state constitution "confers a fundamental right of sexual privacy on an elementary or secondary schoolteacher to engage in consensual sexual intercourse with students over the age of consent."
The government, the court ruled, "has a legitimate interest in providing a safe and healthy educational environment for elementary and secondary school students."
Blumenthal said Tuesday the basic principle - that there is no right to sexual intimacy in an inherently coercive relationship involving a student and a teacher - "seems self-evident to any parent." He added that "the right of privacy simply has no sway when there's no real possibility" of a consenting relationship.
Papillo applauded the ruling.
"The message needs to be sent out loud and clear that these relationships need to be strongly enforced for what they are and can't be used in any way to violate the trust of young individuals," Papillo said. "Whatever type of mentor-student relationship it is, you waive any right to that kind of privacy."
Emanuel said Tuesday he was not surprised with the court's ruling and conceded that challenging the constitutionality of a state law is "very difficult." Still, Emanuel believed his arguments were strong, bolstered by the views of legal scholars and by Lawrence vs. Texas, a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down as unconstitutional a state law prohibiting "deviate sexual conduct" between same-sex adults.
Emanuel said that during the trial of McKenzie-Adams there was no evidence that his client coerced or exploited the students. McKenzie-Adams, who insists that the sexual relationships with the students did not occur, remained free late Tuesday on $1 million bail pending appeal.
Emanuel said he plans to file a motion for re-argument and reconsideration and may appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. He said he will also seek a review of his client's seven-year prison sentence.
Legislators in 2002 expanded the state's statutory rape laws to include coaches and other instructors in response to cases of sexual abuse involving an ice-skating coach and a student in Simsbury and allegations that several high school coaches in Southington had sex with more than a dozen female athletes in the 1980s.
The law now extends to any school employee, including a guidance counselor, school nurse, substitute teacher, social worker or school paraprofessional.
Tuesday's decision by the state Supreme Court also dealt a blow to the defense of Matthew Glasser, a former music teacher at Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford. Glasser, who is awaiting trial on charges that he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old student, has raised the same constitutional issues in his case. His attorney did not return a call for comment Tuesday.