Illicit student-teacher relationships and the law in New York

Posted By Galluzzo & Arnone || 9-Jun-2015

News reports of high school teachers engaging in illicit acts with underage students are becoming almost routine and regular nowadays. The advent of modern smartphones, the prevalence of texting, Snapchat, and the rise of social media platforms have perhaps facilitated these problematic relationships. Regardless, a teacher accused of having engaged in such inappropriate relationships faces a potential litany of terrible consequences including permanent criminal convictions, sex offender registration, public humiliation and vilification, loss of career and professional licensure, and civil lawsuits for damages. It is thus absolutely critical that those educators accused of such crimes retain competent counsel to guide them through these minefields.

A typical serious charge in these scenarios is Rape in the Third Degree (Penal Law Section 130.25[2]). That charge makes it a Class E felony for a person over the age of twenty-one years to engage in sexual intercourse with another person less than seventeen years old. This is a strict liability crime and there is no need for the prosecutor to demonstrate any forcible compulsion on the part of the elder person. A conviction for this charge - sometimes referred to as "statutory rape" - carries serious potential jail sentences and mandatory registration as a sex offender. Similarly, Criminal Sexual Act in the Third Degree (Penal Law Section 130.40[2]) makes it a Class E felony for a person older than twenty-one to engage in oral or anal sexual contact with a person under the age of seventeen.

Rape in the Second Degree (Penal Law Section 130.30[1]) is a more serious Class D felony and applies to individuals over the age of eighteen that engage in sexual intercourse with people younger than fifteen years old, and Criminal Sexual Act in the Second Degree (Penal Law Section 130.45[1]) also makes it a Class D felony for a person older than eighteen to engage in oral or anal sexual contact with a person younger than fifteen.

On some occasions, the adult educators are accused of sending lewd or sexually explicit photos, videos, or text messages to the underage students. Those teachers are then potentially facing felony charges of Disseminating Indecent Materials in the Second or First Degree, depending on the content of the messages (Penal Law Sections 235.21 or 235.22).

Sometimes, teachers partake of controlled substances like ecstasy prior to engaging in sexual contact with their underage students, and in those cases, the teachers may face the Class D felony charge of Facilitating a Sex Offense with a Controlled Substance, in violation of Penal Law Section 130.90.

On the other hand, the victimized students can potentially pursue civil lawsuits for damages against the school districts and the teachers themselves. (Of course, the lawsuits against the school districts are more likely to be lucrative because they have insurance and public funds to pay settlements, whereas teachers often become bankrupt in these situations.) There is no need to prove that the underage victim was an "unwilling participant" in the sexual activity because a minor cannot legally consent to sexual contact with an adult. A lawsuit by a victimized student against a school district will not succeed solely because the offending teacher was employed by the district - the victim plaintiff must demonstrate that the district was negligent in the hiring of the teacher (i.e. failed to do a sufficient background check that would have revealed a propensity for such offending behavior), negligent training, negligent retention (failing to discharge the teacher after learning about misconduct prior to the basis for the lawsuit), and/or negligent supervision of the teacher. In short, if the district had reasonable no way of knowing, predicting, or preventing the behavior by the teacher, then the district cannot be held to blame for the teacher's actions towards the student. The amount of damages can be difficult to predict but is mostly determined by the psychological or psychiatric harm that the student has suffered or can expect to suffer as a result of this victimization.

If you or a loved one have been accused of an improper relationship with a student, or been victimized by a teacher, you should strongly consider contacting the experienced litigators at Galluzzo & Arnone LLP. Their team of former prosecutors, including Matthew Galluzzo, a former Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor, has expertise representing people on both sides of this scenario, and can advise you how to best proceed.

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