Olsen rolls out legislation targeting teacher-student romances

03/27/2012 2:09 PM

03/28/2012 2:46 PM

A 41-year-old high school teacher in Modesto exchanges thousands of text messages with his student, then leaves his wife and three children to date her. The couple then goes on national TV, saying their relationship didn't become physical until she turned 18.

In California, there's nothing illegal about what they did.

A bill rolled out Tuesday would change that, making such relationships a felony even if the student is 18, and strip teachers of their pensions and retiree benefits if convicted.

To prevent teachers from "grooming" students for relationships when they become adults, Assembly Bill 1861 would criminalize seductive communication, such as sexual text messages.

"Our hope is that that will be a pretty strong and painful deterrent and will cause someone to think twice before starting an inappropriate, unethical relationship with a student," said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, the bill's sponsor.

It is illegal for teachers to have affairs with students who are 18 and older in 23 states, including Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, Connecticut and Kansas, according to Olsen.

Teacher James Hooker, 41, and student Jordan Powers, 18, struck up their relationship at Enochs High School. Revelations of their relationship made national headlines. In interviews for the "Dr. Phil" show and ABC's "Good Morning America," the couple can be seen holding hands and exchanging smiles.

Asked if he would condone a relationship of his teenage daughter at 18 and an older teacher, Hooker told TV host Phil McGraw that he would respect his daughter's decision.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Jordan Powers said she and Hooker had no reaction to the bill. "He has no opinion. We're staying totally away from that," she said. But, "I don't think that it's necessary."

Powers said that Hooker and his wife are divorcing, but she and Hooker have no wedding plans. Both are looking for work.

She is finishing high school through an individual study program, but told her mother, Tammie, she was giving up her dream of walking in the graduation ceremony with her class. She was afraid of being booed, said Tammie Powers.

Enochs students staged a day of support earlier this month for Hooker's daughter. She was a junior at Enochs, active in student leadership and on the school's winning Mock Trial team. She transferred to another school after the affair was revealed.

Tammie Powers has been on national talk shows raising the alarm about teacher-student relationships and strongly backs Olsen's bill.

"I had no legal recourse whatsoever with an 18-year-old, and I believe that the teacher pursued her," said Powers, who attended Tuesday's news conference in Sacramento with Olsen. "So this will be a preventative measure."

The Modesto Police Department is investigating the situation. Jordan Powers first took one of Hooker's classes at age 15, but the couple maintains that their relationship did not become romantic until after she turned 18 in September.

In California, such affairs between teachers and of-age students are frowned upon but not illegal. If the relationship did not turn physical until recently, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said Tuesday, there is little law enforcement can do.

Christianson said his time in the high-tech crimes unit showed him the importance of cracking down on inappropriate communication between children and adults.

"We know for a fact that pedophiles are predators, and they groom their victims long before they victimize them," he said.

There's no way to know how often these teacher-student relationships develop.

Since her daughter's story broke last month, Powers said she received more than 5,000 e-mails from all over the country, many from parents worried that their children may be in a similar situation.

Olsen's bill is one of several measures Republicans are proposing to make it easier for school districts to fire and punish educators who engage in criminal behavior.

One of the measures would strip convicted felons of their state pensions, a bill inspired by the recent case of a former Los Angeles teacher charged with 23 counts of lewd acts against children.

Olsen, the mother of three children, said teachers need to face harsher punishments when they violate the community's trust by seducing their students.

"We think that when we send our kids to school, these are safe and secure positive learning environments," she said.

On the Net:

Text of AB 1861: http://arc.asm.ca.gov/member/25/pdf/AB1861AmendmentsMarch2012.pdf.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin contributed to this report.

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