Legislating to Keep Children Safe at School: Are Sex Offenders Really Worse Than Murderers?

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In recent years, the media has barraged the public with countless stories of teachers caught sexually assaulting their students, (1) sparking understandable alarm and outrage. In an effort to allay concerns and calm the frenzy, many states have passed legislation aimed at teacher-student sex abuse. (2) Most recently, in June 2008, the New York state legislature enacted a statute that requires the Education Commission to automatically and immediately revoke the teaching license and certification of any teacher convicted of a sex offense. (3) Several other states have passed similar measures. (4)

According to New York Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, the New York statute is simply a matter of "commonsense." (5) New York Governor David Paterson described the statute as a necessary measure in "mak[ing] sure that sex offenders are not in a classroom setting that may put our children in harm's way." (6)

The New York statute is indeed "commonsense," insofar as it accomplishes three legitimate goals cited by the New York legislature as motivations for the statute. First, by revoking a teacher's license without delay upon conviction, the statute makes it less likely that another school district will fail to discover the prior conviction and unintentionally re-hire the convicted teacher. (7) Second, because it is often difficult to get a teaching certificate reinstated after a conviction, the statute limits the opportunity for recidivism. (8) Finally, and importantly, the statute improves upon prior New York law, which required the Education Commission to conduct a costly and time-consuming separate administrative hearing before revoking a teacher's credentials--even after the teacher was found guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt" with the stringent due process protections available in a criminal proceeding. (9)

Although the statute may be a matter of "commonsense," this Note proposes that it is not "commonsense" to limit the statute to sex offenses. Heightened media attention surrounding sex crimes, in combination with the general public perception that sex offenses are more heinous than other crimes, likely influenced the New York legislature to single out sex offenses for special treatment under the law. This Note argues that New York ought to expand the statute to provide for the automatic revocation of a teacher's license upon conviction, not only of sex offenses, but also of similarly serious crimes that put children at risk of psychological or physical harm. For example, a teacher should lose his or her teaching certificate automatically for crimes such as murder, assault or battery, and kidnapping.

I. LEGISLATIVE HISTORY AND PURPOSE

The New York statute, which was introduced and sponsored in the Assembly by Ms. Cathy Nolan (Democrat, Queens) (10) and in the Senate by Mr. Stephen Saland (Republican, Poughkeepsie), (11) reflected a three-way agreement between the Assembly, the Senate, and the Governor. (12) On June 18, 2008, both the Assembly and the Senate passed the bill (AB 11500 and SB 8553), and less than one month later, Governor Paterson signed it. (13)

The statute is straightforward: It automatically and immediately decertifies teachers and other educators who are convicted of any sex offense. (14) A "sex offense" is defined by the statute to include "an offense committed in any jurisdiction for which the offender is required to register as a sex offender in New York." (15) Logistically, in order to achieve its purpose, the statute requires district attorneys to promptly notify the State Education Department whenever a teacher is convicted of a sex offense as defined by the statute. (16) Then, the statute requires the State Education Department, once notified, to promptly revoke that convicted teacher's certification. (17)

Legislative history and public statements by those who supported the law reveal at least three motivations for the statute, and, for the most part, the statute is effective in implementing those three legitimate motivations. …