Last week, the Utah House of Representatives advanced legislation that aims to add another layer of protection against predation for college students. HB287 is not a comprehensive solution to a frightening problem of sexual misconduct on college campuses and elsewhere; however, it is a step in the right direction that should be paired with increasingly vigilant campus policies against exploitation of minors and young adults.
The bill specifically expands who is included in Utah’s criminal code as an adult “in a position of special trust.” This language is intended to address people, such as elementary and secondary schoolteachers, who are in a “position of authority” over a minor and abuse that power, elevating the crime to an “aggravated sexual abuse” charge with more severe sentencing.
Currently, professors, instructors or teaching aides at colleges and universities aren’t included in the criminal code. The original drafters of the legislation likely operated under the assumption that students of higher education are 18 and older. But legislators, thanks to the advocacy of university administrators, have realized many students arrive at college while still underage and are vulnerable to the predation of professors and other administrators in their new environment. This bill affirms legally the impropriety of a coercive relationship, harassment or misconduct between professors and underage students.
While this amendment is a relatively minor semantic addition, it would have significant implications should it pass the Senate and gain the governor’s signature. Primarily, it would signal to students, parents and university staff members that the state and its institutions of higher learning take seriously abuses of power, as they should. The nature of power, and its ability to coerce, control and harm, has been an essential focus of the #MeToo movement, and cementing these advancements into legislation is necessary for positive change.5 comments on this story
The Legislature is right to consider a more expansive assessment of who might constitute the definition of “authority figure,” hopefully deterring would-be predators from engaging in inappropriate and unwelcome behavior. More importantly, however, the amendment would send a clear message to professors and instructors to think critically about the appropriateness of their interactions with students. It should encourage all to be part of the solution, not the problem.
Universities across Utah have fallen under scrutiny during the past year for cases of sexual assault and the way some have handled investigations, with many students demanding more from their schools. These students have advocated for more responsiveness to complaints of stalking, harassment and misconduct, from both peers and professors. This is critical to addressing those needs and helps chip away at a pervasive culture of shame that too often silences victims who need the most attention.