An Alabama judge has ruled this week that a state law criminalizing teacher-student sex is unconstitutional — and dismissed charges against a teacher and aide accused of having relations with their students, according to local media.
The law, created in 2010, prohibits school employees from having sex with students under 19 — and violators could be charged with a Class B felony, carrying a punishment of up to 20 years behind bars, the site reported. The law requires those convicted to register as sex offenders — and consent is not a defense.
But defense attorneys have argued that the law violates teachers’ equal protection right under the 14th Amendment, because it treats teachers and other school employees differently than other citizens, the outlet reported. In Alabama, other adults who have consensual sex with 16-year-olds do not face criminal prosecution.
“The Court finds this statute unconstitutional as applied to these defendants,” Thompson wrote in his order, according to AL.com. “In finding so, this court does not endeavor to absolve any wrongdoing or to excuse the defendants. Moreover, the court does not encourage any similarly situated party to engage with impunity in what may very well be criminal behavior.”
Witt, 43, a history, psychology and social studies teacher who also coached girls’ golf and junior varsity cheer, was charged with two counts of a school employee having sex with a student in March of 2016, the outlet reported.
She is accused of having sex with a male student who was 17 when the relationship started and another male student who was 18, authorities said.
Solomon, 26, was fired later that month after his arrest on one count of a school employee having sex with a student.
He is accused of having sex with a 17-year-old female student whom he met on Facebook, police said.
Judges have been asked to dismiss the charges in other similar cases on unconstitutionality grounds, but have neglected to do so, AL.com reported.
“We’ve already been in touch with the [Attorney General’s] Office and they are going to handle the appeal, which is typical when a state statute is attacked on a constitutional basis,” Morgan County District Attorney Scott Anderson told the outlet.
A “Saturday Night Live” skit about a male student having sex with his female high schoolteacher painted the relationship as every teen boy’s dream, but drew a firestorm of criticism on social media.
The reaction to the comedy sketch reflected a growing view among law enforcement and victims’ advocacy groups that it is no laughing matter when a woman educator preys on her male students.
In U.S. schools last year, almost 800 school employees were prosecuted for sexual assault, nearly a third of them women. The proportion of women facing charges seems to be higher than in years past, when female teachers often got a pass, said Terry Abbott, a former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education, who tracked the cases.
This year’s numbers are already slightly ahead of last year with 26 cases of female school employees accused of inappropriate relationships with male students in January compared to 19 cases the previous January.
Female educators who sexually abuse their students are facing tougher prosecution in part because there are more women police officers. There is also a greater awareness among prosecutors, judges and the general public that students who are victimized by an authority figure, regardless of gender, experience trauma with life-long consequences.
“Law enforcement is increasingly feminized, and women are much less prone to the old attitude: ‘Oh, this is just some kid who got lucky,’” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. “They recognize the issues involved and they go after women who violate the statutes.”
Depression and difficulty maintaining future relationships are among the long-term consequences that male victims face, according to experts. Those problems are sometimes compounded by confusion and guilt over whether they are actually victims since their adolescent bodies involuntarily respond to physical contact.
Child abuse experts agree it appears female teachers are being prosecuted more vigorously than in the past.
The crackdown is the result of “two seismic shifts,” said Christopher Anderson, executive director of Male Survivor, the largest U.S. advocacy organization for male sex-crime victims.
“One is a recognition that it does not matter who the perpetrator is or what the circumstances are. A teacher has absolutely no business engaging in sexual contact with a student,” Anderson said. “The second is a shift in the culture where boys and their parents are feeling empowered to come forward to say that something has been done.”
In recent weeks, a Stamford, Connecticuthigh school English teacher, Danielle Watkins, 32, whose case was prosecuted by a female state’s attorney, was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for having sex with an underage male student.
In Michigan, a female judge sentenced Madison High Spanish teacher Kathryn Ronk, 30, to up to 15 years in prison for having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy, saying “the law does not recognize a double standard.”
In New Jersey, a female prosecutor said the most lenient plea deal she would offer Nicole Dufault, 35, a Columbia High School English teacher accused of sexual relationships with six teenage boys, was 15 years in prison.
There are contrary examples, such as Pennsylvania’s Erica Ann Ginnetti, 35, the Lower Moreland High School math teacher who had sex with a 17-year-old student and was sentenced to 30 days in jail by a male judge who said, “What young man would not jump on that candy?”
That was after a female prosecutor reportedly said in court that the victim’s senior year became a nightmare, his grades plunged and he still struggles with social interactions.
But the Twitter furor ignited by the April “SNL” skit in which a male judge fist-bumps a boy who had sex with his “hot” teacher indicates how attitudes are changing.
“Appalled by the #SNL sketch glorifying sexual abuse of a male student by female teacher. Sends the worst message &minimizes real experiences,” tweeted Heather Timmis @hnt108.
An SNL spokesperson declined to comment.
There is no central U.S. reporting system for tracking female teachers who prey on male students, according to federaleducation officials, but Abbott has been charting the crimes from news coverage. His research showed that female teachers far more often than male teachers use social media to lure students, creating an electronic “paper trail” that may aid prosecutions.
School districts are increasingly moving to ban private social media contact between teachers and students, sometimes in an effort to prevent inappropriate relationships.
“Social media enables the behavior to start,” Abbott said. “There is no way that a teacher is going to walk up to a kid in the hallway and say, ‘Hey, would you like to see a naked picture of me?’ They won’t do it. But they will do that on social media. It’s like it erases what used to be that barrier.”
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Scott Malone and Andrew Hay)