A bill that would require private schools in New York State to report allegations of sexual contact by teachers with students and a second one that would expand legal options for victims of child sex abuse would help bring justice to those victims, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn and State Sen. Tim Kennedy said Wednesday.
Their announcement of support for the legislation came after the Nichols School, an elite private school in Buffalo, released a report last week detailing its investigation into 10 teachers who had improper relationships with students over more than four decades. Nichols hired a Washington law firm to investigate last May after receiving a letter from Elizabeth Russ Mohr, a 1994 Nichols graduate who said she had a sexual relationship with her physics teacher at the school. Mohr was 17 at the time of the affair, and the teacher, Arthur Budington, was 48.
The first bill pending before the State Legislature would close a loophole by requiring private schools to report allegations of misconduct by its teachers and staff to law enforcement, in the same way public schools are required.
Under the proposed law, it would be a criminal offense – a misdemeanor – for a teacher or other staff member at a private school to fail to forward an allegation of sexual abuse of a student. Also it would make it illegal to agree to dismiss an allegation of sexual misconduct by a teacher with a student in exchange for the teacher's resignation.
The second bill is the broader Child Victims Act, versions of which have stalled in the State Legislature for a decade.
Currently, people who were sexually abused as children in New York must initiate criminal charges or a civil suit by the time they reach 23 or they are barred from doing either.
The most recent version of the Child Victims Act would change the statute of limitations for a child sexual abuse victims. The new proposal would suspend the statute of limitations of child sexual abuse for a year, giving victims of any age a chance to come forward about acts committed during their childhood. After that year is over, victims coming forward would have until their 28th birthday to initiate criminal charges and until their 50th birthday to file a civil lawsuit.
At a press conference Wednesday morning in the DA's office, Kennedy blamed the Senate Republicans for not allowing the Child Victims Act to move forward. With so much attention on cases of sexual harassment and abuse in the news and with the recent revelations about misconduct at Nichols, Kennedy said the time was right for the act to finally become law.
"I can almost guarantee a unanimous vote," Kennedy, D-Buffalo, said, if it's allowed to go to a vote on the senate floor.
Flynn said at a press conference that his office is aware of a petition that's asking for his office to conduct a criminal investigation into misconduct at Nichols, separate from the one the school commissioned. He said he wasn't planning at this time to open another investigation but if someone were to come forward with a new complaint to his office, that he would. "I am satisfied that there was a serious investigation," Flynn said.
On Tuesday, State Sen. Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, also announced his support to close the private school loophole as well as legislation that would make it a criminal offense for a teacher to have a sexual relationship with a student under the age of 21. Under current law, teacher/student sexual relationships are not illegal if the student is over 17, Jacobs said in a press release.