Bill would teach kids age-of-consent laws

Teens can become victims or offenders without realizing it

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

 

Washington law

• It is a crime for anyone at least two years older to have sex with a child who is younger than 12.

• It is illegal for anyone at least three years older to have sex with someone younger than 14.

• It is a crime for anyone at least four years older to have sex with someone younger than 16.

• It is illegal for anyone at least five years older to have sexual intercourse with someone younger than 18 if the older person supervises the younger in some way, such as serving as a teacher or coach.

Sexually active teens who don't understand Washington's age-of-consent laws could be committing crimes they aren't even aware of, says state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.

He's championing a bill this session to educate young people about sexual offenses in the hopes of preventing inappropriate relationships from starting in the first place. According to the bill, public schools that already teach sexual health education would be required to also teach students about sexual criminal law in Washington and the legal consequences for committing a sex crime with a minor.

"I was sitting at home one night watching '20/20,' and there was a story on there about a 19-year-old young man who has been convicted of a sex offense and he mentioned on the show that the reason why he had a sex offense is because at age 19, having sex with a 15-year-old is a sexual offense," Orcutt said while advocating for his bill on the House floor earlier this month. "It was his girlfriend. He said: 'If I'd have known this was a sexual offense, I wouldn't have done it.'"

Because of his apparent ignorance of the law, the young man is now branded for life as a sex offender, Orcutt said.

Support in Olympia

So far, Orcutt's proposal, House Bill 1397, is passing through the Legislature with bipartisan support. It sailed through the state House on a vote of 94-4, and it received a favorable public hearing before the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Committee on Friday.

Parents and students from Hawkins Middle School in Belfair testified in support of the bill Friday.

Student Adin Welander said teens start relationships with other teens without knowing the age rules.

"They do have sex, and it affects them their whole life," Welander said. "Nobody wants to hire a sex offender or marry a sex offender. It's kind of creepy. … It's a really bad label. They could have avoided that really easily."

Parent Michael Young said there is plenty of misinformation circulating on the Internet about age-of-consent laws, and Orcutt's bill will help set the record straight.

"As parents, we want to protect our children," Young said. "Maybe they don't know that they are committing an offense. Maybe they don't know that they are becoming a victim."

The bill will help those victims, Orcutt said, because it will let them know when a relationship is inappropriate in the eyes of the law.

"They will know that it's not appropriate for somebody that much older than them to be having sex with them," he said.

If the law is successful in preventing sexual crime, Orcutt said, it also will save the state money because it takes resources to register sex offenders.

The chairwoman of the House's K-12 education committee, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, also has thrown her support behind the legislation, calling it long overdue, preventative and informative.

Speaking from the House floor this month, Santos highlighted her favorite line from the bill.

"What this bill specifically addresses is the need to have our students 'take responsibility for and understand the consequences of their own behavior and the objective of avoiding exploitative or manipulative relationships,'" she said.

State educators have already developed a curriculum to teach students about sexual criminal law, as was mandated by the 2006 Legislature.

"But like so many good pieces of legislation, it ended up with a curriculum being developed and then being put up on the shelf," Santos said. "The legislation before you requires that the curriculum be brought down, reviewed on a biennial basis in cooperation with a variety of community-based organizations, including the Coalition (of) Sexual Assault (Programs), the Washington State Sheriffs and Police Officers, as well as the educators in our state."

Public schools in Washington are not required to offer sexual health education. The districts that do must make sure their curriculum is age-appropriate and medically accurate, doesn't discriminate based on sexual orientation, and teaches various methods (including abstinence) for avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Washington law

• It is a crime for anyone at least two years older to have sex with a child who is younger than 12.

• It is illegal for anyone at least three years older to have sex with someone younger than 14.

• It is a crime for anyone at least four years older to have sex with someone younger than 16.

• It is illegal for anyone at least five years older to have sexual intercourse with someone younger than 18 if the older person supervises the younger in some way, such as serving as a teacher or coach.


Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; http://facebook.com/reportermathieu; http://twitter.com/col_politics; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com.