Who’s teaching who?

Lawyers discuss confusion about consent law, when it applies

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By Mindy Ragan Wood, Staff Writer – The case of a Yukon teacher who is accused of having sex with a student has sparked hot debate on social media about the age of consent.

Legal experts say there is need for the law regarding consent restrictions between otherwise legal age students and teachers. The age of legal consent in Oklahoma allows a 16-year-old to have sex with anyone who is age 16 or older, unless the sexual encounter is between a student and teacher.

Award-winning criminal defense attorney Jacqueline Ford of Oklahoma City routinely represents teachers who have pleaded guilty to having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student, many of them women.

Ford said there is good reason for the law.

“Teachers are in a position of power and influence over a student and not just to give grades, or future recommendations for jobs and programs, but they’re literally shaping their minds. We perceive those relationships differently especially with teachers who spark something inside of us we didn’t know was there. It (the law) has a lot to do with that mentor-mentee relationship and someone must be held to an adult standard, even here without a vast age difference. That’s where the law is coming from.”

Hunter Day, a chemistry teacher at Yukon High School, was arrested for having sex with a 16-year-old male student, Connor Schumaker. Day, 22, was charged in Canadian County District Court last week with second-degree rape and soliciting sex with a minor using technology.

Some see the law as a double standard, especially when the student seeks out the teacher. Ford said in many cases, male students between the ages of 16 to 18 pursue and initiate sexual contact. The public perception is often different when cases involve a male student and a female teacher.

“The law seems to make clear sense when it’s a male teacher and female student because there is something inherently dominant about a male. When it’s a female teacher, the lines tend to get a little blurred in the community’s perception of the unsorted nature of this,” Ford said. “I had a young man come to my office and tell me he sought it out (from his teacher), he was happy about it, and didn’t feel damaged or that he couldn’t grow as a human being. So, what do we do as a community when it is different? What isn’t different is whether it’s a female or male teacher they have the influence of a mentoring relationship,” Ford said.

In her experience, teachers often do not realize that a student of legal age is not legally able to give consent to sex with an instructor from age 16 to 20. She said that districts often do not educate teachers on the law. Day, an emergency certified teacher, was not required to undergo sexual harassment training prior to teaching at YHS.

“Teachers are often unware of the law in this area and they make these kinds of decisions based on their lack of understanding of consent. What makes these relationships unsavory or illegal isn’t the age, it’s the position of power the teacher has. The consequences to this are so huge, that school boards and districts have to start making this a priority…the teachers should be signing consent (education) forms. The teachers (often) don’t know and they’re relying on information regarding consent laws that are true for everyone else except them. They’re going to be judged more harshly than everyone else when they’re not even put on notice. There’s something about it that is kind of unfair.” Ford said.

Simeroth did not respond at press time regarding what types of training Yukon teachers receive in connection with the sexual consent law between teachers and students. The Oklahoma State Department of Education guidelines for emergency certified teachers do not require them to have any training prior to entering the classroom, but does require them to complete “professional development” in pursuit of full certification.

Fair or not, the attorney said the excuse ‘I didn’t know’ is not a legal defense.

“The law does not leave room for mistakes or ‘I didn’t know.’ They’ll be a registered sex offender for the rest of their lives,” she said.

She also explained that the law does not allow for honest mistakes, such as when an adult encounters a minor with a fake ID and does not look like a child. The circumstances have no bearing on the rape and sexual assault law, which carries a mandatory sentence of one to 15 years in prison.

Ford encounters this inflexibilty of the law in many cases and said it limits everyone’s ability to assess cases on an individual basis.

“The law’s strict liability means a lack of room for a defendant’s mistakes and mitigation and it cripples the defense lawyers and prosecutors. Prosecutors can see the difference in these cases, but they tell me time and again, ‘Jacqi, what do you want me to do? My hands are tied.’”

In cases where a defendant has been charged and overwhelming evidence exists against them, Ford said it’s not wise to take the case to a jury. In Day’s case, she admitted to authorities that she had sex with Schumaker and investigators had pictures and text messages as evidence to the allegation.

“At that point there are two options. One is a plea bargain which is where a person promises not to commit the crime again and agrees to certain things like treatment. The other is a blind plea, where a person goes before the judge and the government gets to give the punishment they want. Witness statements are brought in. Then that person can argue for the punishment they want, but the judge can choose either side and do anything else they want within their power to judge,” Ford said.

The probation terms of a plea bargain vary widely from being forbidden to use a cell phone to restricted access to children, including one’s own extended family and friends. Some who are required to register as a sex offender may only have to be registered for a specific number of years.

Criminal prosecution is not the only legal battle that Day may face. In August, the parents of an 8th grade student in Hollis County won a lawsuit against Jennifer Caswell for $1 million and settled a lawsuit against the school for $125,000. The parents claimed the school covered up the sex scandal.

Civil lawsuit attorney Rachel Bussett, of Oklahoma City, said the parents could sue Day and the school district under certain circumstances.

“If you have a case where a child has been the victim of a teacher sex crime, that’s a crime and there’s also potential civil liability to the teacher, and the school depending on the level of knowledge of the crime. If there were other allegations by students, if they didn’t investigate…those are all factors considered on a civil basis,” she said.

At a press conference the morning following Day’s arrest, Superintendent Jason Simeroth said school officials had no knowledge of the accusations until Canadian County Sheriff Chris West notified him of the arrest the night before.