SEFFNER — The notorious cases of Debra Lafave, Ronald Lewis and Christina Butler riled students in a senior American government class at Armwood High School.
Each of the Hillsborough County teachers was convicted of sexual misconduct with students. But the penalties for their misconduct — each got probation and Lafave and Lewis were also sentenced to house arrest — fell far short of what the Armwood students felt was fair.
So the students, all seniors in Tony Pirotta's government class at Armwood, wrote a bill calling for stiffer penalties and harsher sentencing for teachers convicted of sexual misconduct. Last week, they traveled to Tallahassee to lobby state legislators for their support.
"I think it's about time teacher sexual misconduct was addressed," said Cicilia Goodman, one of six students who made the trip.
The idea for the bill came about because of Hillsborough County's annual "Ought to Be A Law" contest, where area students make their pitch for new laws to government officials. The winning team earns the right to have its bill presented before the legislature.
Although the Armwood students didn't win the contest, their idea caught the attention of Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.
Stargel turned their idea into House Bill 659, which she will sponsor. She plans to ask Florida legislators to reclassify sexual misconduct crimes committed by teachers by increasing the penalty for those crimes by one degree. She wants to create tougher sentencing guidelines that would suggest a minimum prison sentence of one year for convicted teachers. If the bill passes, it would take effect Oct. 1.
"It emphasizes the position of respect that teachers have with their students and the importance of safeguarding that relationship," explained Stargel, who said she feels strongly about the issue because she has children.
At Armwood, teachers are celebrating their students' ingenuity.
"It's the first time for the competition to give two bill slots away to students," Pirotta said.
Pirotta's students felt that teachers have a special relationship of authority in the classroom and trust with the communities they serve. Breaking this ethical agreement is a far more heinous crime than the current penalties serve, the students said.
"I think they (teachers) get away with it because a lot of parents don't want their kids to have repercussions afterwards," said senior Kelly Drapeza.
Pirotta hopes that the bill gains the support it needs in the legislative session to pass.
"Our students deserve to learn in an environment where they do not have to fear unethical propositions by those who have promised our students safety," he said.