BOSTON — Advocates for victims of sexual abuse are pushing to close loopholes in state law they say are allowing child predators to go undetected.
In a letter to lawmakers, the group Citizens to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse urged them to approve a package of bills aimed at identifying those who pose a sexual risk to children.
“Massachusetts has a black eye,” they wrote. “While the state holds the prestigious rank of first in the U.S. for overall child well-being, it is not among the 37 states, including all other New England states, with laws requiring schools and youth organizations to educate their employees and students about how to prevent child sexual abuse.”
The raft of bills would require schools to adopt child sexual abuse prevention policies and training, improve screening of prospective employees to identify past sexual misconduct, and criminalize sexual assault by adults in positions of authority, regardless of the age of consent, among other changes.
While Massachusetts already has tough laws on mandated reporting, sexual relations between educators and students go unreported, especially in private schools, where abusers begin “grooming” their victims, advocates say.
Some schools also “pass the trash” by signing nondisclosure agreements with alleged abusers, allowing them to conceal histories of misconduct.
Advocates say Massachusetts continues to rely solely on background checks, which national risk assessment experts say are insufficient to identify those who pose a sexual risk to children.
A bill filed by Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, would toughen the screening of applicants for positions in schools to identify any past sexual misconduct and ban schools from helping an employee engaged in sexual misconduct with a student to get a position in another school.
Another bill filed by Lovely would close the “age of consent loophole” and increase penalties for educator sexual misconduct and for others in positions of authority over a child who commit child sexual abuse. Lovely filed a similar bill in previous sessions but it failed to pass, advocates noted.
Lovely also filed a proposal that would increase the age of sexual consent in schools from 16 to 19, and up to 22 for developmentally disabled students. Those adults would no longer be able to claim age of consent as a defense in a civil action, under the bill.
“Despite urgings from the Massachusetts Association of Chiefs of Police for more than two decades, the Legislature continues to take no action to close this loophole,” they wrote.
Massachusetts has some of the nation’s toughest laws on mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse. Teachers, doctors, nurses and child care workers are threatened with fines and other penalties for failing to report allegations.
The state is also one of six that doesn’t require physical evidence or corroborating reports to launch an investigation of abuse.
Changes in state law aimed at preventing human trafficking, which went into effect in 2016, also require prosecutors to investigate any allegations of child sexual exploitation. Prosecutors say that has driven up their caseloads.
But advocates want the state to focus more on educating those who work around kids to notice signs of a possible sexual predator and tougher requirements for reporting abuse.
They say the package of child sexual abuse prevention bills have been re-filed every legislative session since 2015, but have yet to be approved.
In the letter, the advocates pointed to several recent cases of child sexual abuse in schools, including Daniel Hakim, a 37-year-old former gym teacher at the Saltonstall School in Salem, who was arrested on 37 counts of indecent assault and battery of a child under 14 and two counts of rape of a child.
Hakim allegedly assaulted 12 children between the ages of 6 and 8 while he taught at the school between 2015 and 2018, according to authorities.
“While the vast majority of teachers and other school employees are dedicated, caring people, who do a great job teaching and mentoring our children, all too frequently we see in the news cases of school employees who have sexually abused students,” they wrote.
The advocates told lawmakers there is a sense of urgency to get these bills passed, citing recent U.S. Department of Education data suggesting that sexual abuse affects one in 10 students.
“This means 100,000 of Massachusetts’ one million students are at risk of some form of direct or indirect sexual misconduct or abuse by an adult in their school sometime between K–12th grade,” advocates wrote.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org