BY KYRA GURNEY, Herald Staff Writer
and EMILY L. MAHONEY, Times/Herald Staff Writer
Last May, two Miami-Dade public school employees resigned amid investigations into allegations that they had engaged in inappropriate relationships with female students.
Alex Osuna, then 34, a marine science teacher and girl's lacrosse team coach at Miami Palmetto Senior High, and Darryl Ward, then 49, a security guard at Coral Reef Senior High and a part-time coach for the school's football and track and field teams, quit their jobs within a day of each other.
The Miami-Dade Schools police investigated the allegations and referred the cases to the State Attorney's Office. But because the students in question were 18, no charges were filed. The alleged relationships weren't illegal.
That could soon change.
A proposal under consideration in the Legislature would make it a second-degree felony for teachers and other school employees to have romantic relationships with students, regardless of the student's age. The bills would prohibit any adult working or volunteering at a school from soliciting or engaging in sexual conduct, lewd conduct or a romantic relationship with a student.
"If it's a student and it's a teacher, or any other personnel, employee of the district, then that is a relationship that is off-limits and unacceptable," said Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, who sponsored one of the bills.
Proponents say the proposed law would close loopholes that have allowed teachers to prey on high school students, something they argue is an abuse of power even if the student is legally an adult.
Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, the co-sponsor of one of the bills (House Bill 515), said the issue hit close to home. A school resource officer at her old high school was fired last summer for sending inappropriate text messages to students at the school, she told the House Education Committee on Wednesday. An investigation revealed that the officer had used law enforcement databases to target high school students who were 18 or older, she said.
"It's really scary to think that even at a high school not all of the students are protected," Mariano told the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau. "I just think it's so important to make sure that all of them are protected through every grade. Whether you're 16 or 18, if you're in high school no one really feels that's a big difference while you're there."
Mariano added that because of the power imbalance between school personnel and students, some students might be too scared to refuse sexual advances or report inappropriate behavior. "Students can be really afraid of what the results of that could be, and that's just not fair to them," she said.
Some legal experts worry that the proposed law could cast too wide a net, however.
"Although I commend the Legislature for trying to respond to things that are upsetting to them, this is not the right way to respond," said Tamara Rice Lave, a law professor at the University of Miami who studies campus sexual misconduct and the punishment of sex offenders. "You can't legislate your way out of everything, and laws can be misused, especially penal laws."
A consensual relationship between a teacher and an 18-year-old student "may be unethical, it may be that a teacher is violating their ethical duties, but does that mean it should be criminalized?" she said.
Lave added that the language in the bill is broad enough that it could be used to criminalize a wide range of conduct, including a relationship between an 18-year-old who volunteers at a high school and an 18-year-old student, for example.
Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami law professor who teaches criminal and First Amendment law, raised similar concerns. She said the proposed law does not appear to be constitutional given a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that criminalizing private, intimate activity between consenting adults violates liberty and privacy rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
"In addition, the bill's prohibition not only of sexual conduct but 'relationship[s] of a romantic nature' is not only vague but also likely violates First Amendment rights of free expression and association," she added in an e-mail.
Lawmakers in Tallahassee aren't just seeking to criminalize romantic and sexual relationships between teachers and students. They also want school districts to crack down on the behavior.
Rodrigues' bill, HB 1391, would hold school districts accountable if they fail to report certain misconduct to law enforcement, including by docking the superintendent's salary. The bill would also require school administrators to disclose a former employee's misconduct to any prospective employers who ask for a reference. And it compels school districts to notify the Florida Department of Education of "all legally sufficient complaints" even if an employee no longer works for the district.
The hope is that these provisions will keep teachers who prey on students from falling through the cracks, Rodrigues told the Times/Herald. The lawmaker was inspired to write the bill after he was contacted by a parent whose 18-year-old son allegedly had a relationship with a female teacher at his high school.
When the teacher found out that she was under investigation, according to Rodrigues, she left the school district and the investigation ended. The woman was able to keep her teaching certificate and got a job with a state agency where she has direct contact with children, Rodrigues said.
"It's important for us to know that teachers can't just leave and go do this somewhere else," Rodrigues said. "We've got to stop this from occurring and so that's why we've put in the accountability measures."
In Miami-Dade, one high school teacher pursued inappropriate relationships with eight current or former students at two schools over a 14-year period, according to a lawsuit filed against the Miami-Dade School Board last August.
The suit alleges that the school district failed to protect students from creative writing teacher Jason Edward Meyers despite numerous red flags, including a report from a schools police officer who saw Meyers leaning over a student in a "very personal" and "intimate" fashion in a school hallway, and an anonymous e-mail sent to the principal at Dr. Michael M. Krop High School, where Meyers taught, alleging that a creative writing teacher was having sex with students.
Despite the concerns, Meyers was able to move from Krop High to Palmetto Senior High, where he continued to engage in inappropriate relationships with underage female students, according to the suit.
Meyers, 42, was arrested in February 2016 on charges related to an alleged sexual relationship with an underage Palmetto student. The criminal case is ongoing, according to court records.
Two House bills that would make romantic relationships between teachers and students a second-degree felony passed the Education committee unanimously on Wednesday, but haven't yet been brought to the House floor for a final vote. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate, but hasn't moved forward since early January. Bills must pass in both chambers for a proposal to become law.