TRENTON >> The circumstances surrounding a Steinert teacher allegedly accused of engaging in sexual relations with a student is spurring legislation to close a loophole.
The Trentonian reported on Thursday that English teacher Andrea Donio was not criminally charged because police could not determine if the alleged sex acts occurred before or after the female student turned 18, a parent of a Steinert student close to the victim’s family disclosed to The Trentonian.
Unlike neighboring Pennsylvania, New Jersey has no laws on the books to prohibit teachers from engaging in sexual acts with students 18 and older.
Enacted in 2011, Pennsylvania’s institutional sexual assault law considers it a felony for school employees to have sexual relationships with students regardless of age.
Shortly after reading The Trentonian story online on Thursday, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer/Hunterdon) introduced legislation to make any future situations like the Steinert case a crime.
“In this situation, they just can’t prove when the relationship started whether it occurred before or after the student turned 18,” said Gusciora, who is also a prosecutor in Princeton and Lawrence. “This way it takes all the guesswork out of law enforcement. If there is any inappropriate relationship, it would be criminal conduct.”
Following suit, state Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) also introduced legislation on Friday to hold school employees’ accountable if they engage in sexual relations with children.
“There are so many wonderful teachers and school employees that there just seem to be those few that don’t understand what their role is with their students,” she said Friday. “They’re in a position of authority and to think that they would violate that is just ridiculous.”
Like Gusciora, the state senator’s seeks to make the crime a felony.
“We want to make sure that a student of any age is still regarded as a student and in that secure position of being untouchable,” Allen said, adding she didn’t realize there was a loophole until reading The Trentonian story. “We want to make sure that every teacher and every school employee understands that it’s not a matter of age, it’s a matter of some people are in a position of authority and some people are under their authority and you never violate that line.”
Gusciora, who is running for re-election in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, also said he was surprised to learn that New Jersey law does not cover all students. In documented cases, he said usually the student is underage, making it a crime.
“It’s inappropriate for a teacher to ever have sexual relationships with their students, particularly because they’re in a supervisory relationship,” he said, noting the educator grades and evaluates students. “They definitely have some control over the student where the student may feel vulnerable especially if they say no.”
Even if the student is a willing participant, the longtime 15th district legislator said the teacher is “100 percent to blame.” “The victim is truly the victim,” said Gusciora, who was 18 for three months when he was a senior in high school. “They’re the ones in the worst situation because they’re maybe perceived by their peers as being a tattletale, as someone who’s got themselves in that own situation and now the teacher is in trouble. Whereas, the teacher always has the upper hand and should know better than engaging in that relationship.”
As for Donio, she could still receive punishment if her alleged actions are deemed conduct unbecoming of a teacher.
The Hamilton Township Board of Education voted Wednesday to suspend an employee with pay with the initials A.D. retroactive to May 14 until the outcome of a pending investigation is complete, the meeting’s agenda outlined. The parent confirmed that Donio was the employee suspended.
Donio, who was the victim’s teacher, could also have her teaching certificate revoked or suspended by the New Jersey Department of Education.
Allen said if the bill she has proposed is different from Gusciora’s proposal, they can “amend them and make them do exactly the same thing."
“It’s very important that we take care of this and take care of it soon,” she said. “We just need to make sure that we have the laws on the books that protects children from those predators.”
David Foster, Trentonian