LINCOLN — Lisa Albers fought to retain her composure Tuesday as she described for a panel of lawmakers how a substitute high school teacher groomed her daughter for sex.
Albers, a Grand Island school board member, urged members of the Legislature’s Education Committee to support Legislative Bill 1080, which would require Nebraska schools to adopt policies prohibiting sexual contact between educators and students or former students for up to a year after they left school.
Albers testified that her 17-year-old daughter was manipulated into having sex less than two weeks after graduation.
“While we will never know if a stronger school policy would have prevented this incident, we must send a message to school employees that actions like his will have consequences,” Albers said.
If the bill passes, public, parochial and private schools would have to adopt policies prohibiting grooming and listing what conduct is inappropriate between teachers and students. The policies would have to indicate how to report misconduct, how employees would be made aware of the policy, and specify the consequences for a violation. It would also have to designate the preferred method of electronic communication between teachers and students.
Most Omaha area districts and the Lincoln Public Schools have professional boundaries policies, though they vary in scope and detail.
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha told the committee that the vast majority of Nebraska teachers would never engage in the kind of behavior the bill is intended to prevent.
“We have great teachers in this state. It’s unfortunate that the actions of a small group, or a small number of individuals, have us here today.”
He said the impetus for the bill came from meetings with families affected by abuse about the same time as The World-Herald and other media outlets published stories on educator sexual misconduct.
The World-Herald published a story Dec. 15 detailing how a math teacher’s abuse of a student went on at Davis Middle School in Omaha, despite numerous red flags about the teacher’s behavior.
In January, the newspaper published the results of an investigation into the frequency of educator sexual misconduct. The paper found that, on average, 10 Nebraska educators are caught each year engaging in inappropriate sexual communication or contact with students.
Experts say that only one in 10 student victims reports the abuse.
Grooming behaviors are what perpetrators use to gain a victim’s trust and break down their resistance.
Albers told the committee that minimum behavior standards are vital to protect students from predators.
She said that while many districts already have such policies, LB 1080 would ensure that all schools have one.
“We have watched our daughter suffer from the aftermath of the abuse by this teacher,” she said. “This event has had life-altering effects on her. We can only begin to understand the consequences of grooming and manipulation on a young person’s development.”
Recovery “is a very long road,” she said.
In Nebraska, the age of consent for sex is 16. The Grand Island substitute teacher could not be criminally prosecuted, but the Nebraska Department of Education permanently revoked his teaching certificate.
State Sen. Mike Groene, the Education Committee chairman, asked Lathrop how an administrator enforcing the policy would know if a teacher’s behavior was intended to groom a child for sex.
“I’m fully on board if the crime was committed, but is there a crime prior to there being sexual contact?” Groene asked.
Lathrop said his bill doesn’t make grooming a crime, only a policy violation. Four other bills have been introduced that would essentially make it a crime for an educator to have sex with a high school student, regardless of age.
He acknowledged that grooming is difficult to define.
But he said most people would recognize it, he said.
Lathrop said grooming is a pattern of behavior intended to develop a close relationship that creates the opportunity for sex.
He said he would leave it to the school districts to define grooming.
“I think people know it when they see it,” Lathrop said. “I’m going to use a poor analogy. A Supreme Court judge once said it’s hard to describe porn but you know it when you see it. And that’s a little bit like grooming. It’s hard to define because it can take many different forms.”
Lathrop said he would expect that school administrators would initially warn and counsel teachers when they violated a boundary.
The bill garnered support from the Nebraska Department of Education, Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, the Nebraska Council of School Administrators and the Nebraska State Education Association.
Maddie Fennell, executive director of the 28,000-member teachers union, said there’s no acceptable reason why a teacher in a pre-K-12 school district should be in a sexual relationship with a student, regardless of the age of the student.
“If that does occur, the educator needs to face consequences even greater than the revocation of their teaching certificate,” Fennell said.
She said the union does have a responsibility to its members to make sure there are not unintended consequences from such policies. But she said the union would put the safety of children first.
Jack Moles, executive director of the rural schools association, said that it would be difficult for school administrators to monitor behavior after a student leaves a district, but the association believes that there needs to be a clear separation between the educator and former student.
“For an administrator it might be a little difficult to monitor that year out, but more than likely, within that time frame, there was grooming going on before the student graduated or left the school,” he said.