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Thumbnail image for Teacher Student Romance.JPE.JPGLegislation to make it a felony for teachers to engage in sexual activities with a student at their school was killed today by the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

The measure, Assembly Bill 1861, was sparked by a recent Modesto incident in which 18-year-old Jordan Powers moved in with 41-year-old James Hooker, who had been a teacher at her Enochs High School.

The two claimed that Powers was 18 before their relationship became romantic. AB 1861 would encompass relationships in which both student and teacher are adults, but it would not apply to past cases, including the Modesto relationship.

AB 1861 by Modesto Republican Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen targets employees of elementary, middle and high schools, but not colleges. It would outlaw not only sexual relations but sexual communications with students.

Democrats torpedoed the measure at today's committee hearing after questions arose about its constitutionality and other issues, such as why a ban should apply only to school employees and whether it could chill communications about sex-related issues in "The Great Gatsby" or other novels.

Olsen argued that teachers abuse their position of authority if they engage in sexual activities with a student, regardless of age. Parents should have confidence that the state is doing everything possible to ensure its public schools are safe environments for learning, she said.

Tammie Powers, mother of the Modesto student who moved in with her former teacher, urged lawmakers to pass AB 1861 at today's hearing.

Besides criminal penalties, AB 1861 would expel from the public pension system any school employee convicted of having sex or engaging in sex-related communications - such as sexting or lewd e-mails - with a student. Offenders would be refunded any retirement contributions they made to the pension system.

Opponents of AB 1861 note that state law already makes it a crime for adults to have sex or attempt to seduce a minor. By targeting conduct between consenting adults -- 18-year-old high school students -- the bill could violate constitutional rights to free speech and free assembly, opponents say.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, chairman of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, said he was upset by the Modesto incident but felt that too many too many questions surround AB 1861. "I feel it's not fully baked," he said.

"We have to protect free speech even when we don't like it," Ammiano said.

After today's hearing, Olsen said she will continue working on legislation to crack down on predatory behavior by unethical teachers. She conceded, however, that the issue is probably dead for this year.

The Modesto couple whose case sparked the bill reportedly ended their relationship this month after Hooker was arrested by Modesto police on charges of engaging in a sex act with another teenage girl 14 years ago. That case is pending.

PHOTO CREDIT: Enochs High School student Jordan Powers, 18, and James Hooker, 41, talk about their relationship during an interview on Feb. 28, 2012 in Modesto, AP Photo/The Modesto Bee, Debbie Noda

* Updated at 10:45 a.m. to add additional information about developments and comments in today's committee hearing.


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