A bill that would expand the definition of “position of special trust” in sexual abuse cases to include higher education employees passed favorably out of committee last week and will move to the House floor next.
According to the bill, current legislation defines public and private school employees at the elementary and secondary level as people in a “position of special trust.” The definition does not include those in a public or private university setting.
HB287 would add wording to include “an instructor, professor or teaching assistant at a public or private institution of higher education” under the definition of somebody in a position of trust.
Child sexual abuse is elevated to aggravated sexual abuse of a child when the abuse is committed by an abuser occupying a position of trust. With the added wording, penalties are more serious, according to bill sponsor Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan.
“Students have a right to be safe in any setting,” Ivory said. “Certainly a K-12 setting, but increasingly, we are graduating students early.”
According to Ivory, 3 percent of U.S. students graduate early and enter higher education before age 18. Ivory said that means 20,000 students in Utah.
Based on a Government Accountability Office study from 2014, one in ten students are victims of adult sexual misconduct, he said.
“We now have younger and younger students going to universities, and our policies have not reflected that,” Ivory said.
He said he was “horrified” when he heard some stories about university-level abuse.
“If you were to Google right now, if you were to Google ‘professor’ and ‘sexual abuse’ – more than 1.2 million hits,” Ivory said. “And the stories are horrific.”
Ivory said he has “repeatedly” heard stories about students in the Utah State University music department saying they don’t feel safe.
Multiple students have made sexual abuse and rape allegations, he added.
Ivory pointed out that despite these dangers, many consider higher education to be an essential avenue to their “desired life.”
The bill “provides an enhanced protection for them, that they have a safe environment from being preyed upon sexually in any university setting,” Ivory said.
Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, said he “wholeheartedly supports” HB287.
“I think it’s important to delineate these aggravating factors, because those are special positions of trust that those people occupy, and particularly when you think about sending younger and younger kids off to higher ed,” Waldrip said.
Utah lawmakers gave HB287 a favorable recommendation and the bill passed out of committee Feb. 19. It will be considered on the full House floor next.