A Republican lawmaker announced legislation Tuesday to make it a felony for a K-12 teacher to date a student regardless of age, responding to a high-profile case at a Modesto high school in which the student is an adult.
Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, introduced Assembly Bill 1861 after news broke that Enochs High School teacher James Hooker, 41, had started a relationship with 18-year-old student Jordan Powers. Hooker left his wife, resigned from his job and moved in with Powers.
"I believe this bill will serve as a deterrent, as a preventative measure," said Tammie Powers, Jordan's mother, at a Capitol press conference. "As parents, we send our children to school with the expectation that they're going to be safe, they're going to receive a good education. Not that they're going to be pursued."
AB 1861 would have no impact on Hooker, whose case is under investigation and has resulted in no charges thus far. Hooker and Powers have denied that they had a relationship before she was an adult.
But in the future, the bill would create a felony for any public school employee who begins a sexual relationship or has "excess and inappropriate communication" with a student of any age. The bill's inclusion of inappropriate communication, described in broad terms, is meant to deter teachers from starting down a path that could lead to an intimate relationship, Olsen said.
AB 1861 also would expel the school employee from the public pension system, though it would return employee retirement contributions back to the worker.
Olsen said she wanted to impose a felony charge in such cases because as many as 23 other states have similar penalties for teachers in the same circumstance as Hooker.
The bill would not pertain to college instructors, and it only applies to teachers and students at the same K-12 public school. Olsen's chief of staff, Jennifer Gibbons, said that the assemblywoman initially has focused on public school teachers because of the pension provision but that she would be interested in extending the felony charge to private school teachers as the bill proceeds.
In addition to backing from GOP colleagues, Olsen said she had support so far from two Central Valley Democrats, Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, and Sen. Michael Rubio, D-East Bakersfield.
PHOTO CREDIT: Tammie Powers, left, mother of the Modesto student who started a relationship with her teacher, participates in a press conference at the State Capitol. At right is Assemblywoman Linda Halderman, R-Fresno, who supports legislation that would make teachers engaging in such relationships subject to a felony. The Sacramento Bee / Randy Pench.