Texas Law Tough on Sexual Relationships between Teachers and Students
By: Gerri L. Elder
On September 1, 2003, a law took effect in Texas making it a felony offense for an educator to engage in a sexual relationship with a student who attends the school where they teach, regardless of the student’s age or gender. In Texas, the legal age of consent for sexual activity is 17, but under the law, teacher-student relationships in which the students were 17 and 18 years old have been criminalized.
A handful of teachers have been arrested and criminally prosecuted under the law; however the media didn’t appear to go crazy over the law until 25-year-old Amy McElhenney, a former Miss Texas contestant, was arrested on May 25, 2006. McElhenney was accused of having a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old male student at Hebron High School in Carrollton, Texas where she taught Spanish and coached cross-country track. Under the law, the improper relationship warranted a second-degree felony charge for McElhenney and she faced 20 years in prison if convicted.
The alleged relationship between McElhenney and the 18-year-old student was discovered after another student sent an anonymous note to the school’s resource officer indicating that the teacher’s cell phone contained some steamy messages between her and the student with whom she was ultimately accused of having a sexual relationship.
When questioned, McElhenney allowed the officer to view the messages on her phone but denied having a physical or sexual relationship with the student, according to the Dallas Morning News. However, when police questioned the student, he spilled the beans and told officers that he and McElhenney had a sexual relationship and had engaged in sexual relations at her apartment many times.
Texas State Representative Helen Giddings wrote the 2003 law under which McElhenney was charged. However, upon hearing of McElhenney’s arrest, Giddings became an unlikely supporter of the teacher and said that she had meant for the law to only apply to students 17-years-old and younger and felt uncomfortable categorizing sex between two consenting adults as a felony. When Gidding’s bill reached the floor of the Texas House of Representatives, other legislators added amendments making it illegal for educators to engage in sexual relationships with students of any age, making the law much more powerful and controversial.
In October 2006, a grand jury refused to indict McElhenney and the second-degree felony charge against her was dismissed.
More recently, the controversial Texas law has been making headlines again. This time it is a male teacher and coach who has been arrested for having an improper relationship with a 17-year-old student whom he plans to marry.
Randy Arias, like McElhenney, taught Spanish and coached track at a high school in Austin. He was arrested four days after applying for a marriage license to marry a teenage girl who is a student at the school where he taught. The 17-year-old student had her mother’s approval to marry Arias and the mother went with the couple to give legal consent for the marriage license.
Arias is charged with a second-degree felony under the same law that got McElhenney in hot water. If convicted of having an improper sexual relationship with the girl, who is now his fiancée, he will face up to 20 years in prison. According to a report by the Associated Press, Arias has no prior criminal record.
Shannon Edmonds, the director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association told the Associated Press that in most cases, if the teacher and student are either still in a relationship or have parted on good terms, even in cases that result in a conviction there is rarely prison time and instead the punishment of choice for the teachers is probation.
Edmonds says that the cases depend to a great degree on the age of the student. Cases in which the student is 17 or 18 years old at the time of the sexual relationship with the teacher have proven difficult to prosecute. In some cases, such as the case against McElhenney, the grand juries have cleared the teachers and therefore there have been no prosecutions.
While some say that age is an important factor in the prosecution of teachers who have sexual relationships with students, others may argue that gender may also play a role. It may be interesting to see if Arias is prosecuted and convicted, and if so, what sentence he receives compared to a female teacher charged under the same Texas law. Ironically, the law was written so that age and gender are to be disregarded; however, those are the issues that seem to be discussed the most by lawmakers, media and prosecutors.