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Minnesota high school teachers are having sex with older students - legally

ST. PAUL—Minnesota high school teachers, administrators and contractors are legally allowed to have sex with their students over the age of 18.

And it happens.

"Fortunately, teachers having sex with students is not very common," Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said in an interview. "But unfortunately, when it does happen, we can't prosecute — but it's just wrong."

Last year, an 18-year-old Burnsville High School student reported having sexual relations with a male teacher, Backstrom said. His office investigated but could not press charges.

That's because state law says that when someone turns 18, they are no longer covered by statutes that prevent authority figures like teachers from having a sexual relationship with them. The act might be against school policies, but it's not illegal.

In 2007, Charles Ames Brookins, 29, a Hastings High School baseball and softball coach, was charged with providing liquor to several students. He pleaded guilty. He was not charged with the thing that brought his case to authorities' attention: allegedly having sex with an 18-year-old softball player.

Following that case, Backstrom pushed for state laws to be changed, but it didn't happen.

Now it might.

Two nearly identical proposals moving through the Legislature would make it illegal for any high school teacher, administrator, staff, contractor or volunteer in a position of authority to have sex with any high school student age 21 or younger. (Some Minnesota high school programs accept students as old as 21.)

Under the bills, the teacher would be guilty of either third- or fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, depending on the circumstances.

Thus far, the bills have not faced any opposition during public hearings.

State Rep. Drew Christensen, R-Savage, the lead sponsor of one of the bills, said the recent Burnsville incident prompted him to seek changes to the law.

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, the lead sponsor of the other bill, said he has known of the issue from when he was a school board member.

Gruenhagen learned of the gap in the law during closed school board meetings dealing with a teacher accused of having sex with students a number of years ago.

"One of the discouraging things is we were told in closed meetings ... to give him a clean record, and I think we paid him a certain amount of money to leave the district, even though there were numerous allegations of sexual misconduct against him," Gruenhagen said.

Two months ago, he said, a police officer contacted him.

"This particular former teacher was now employed in a nursing home and was now accused of sexual misconduct toward women nursing home patients, if you can believe that," Gruenhagen told his fellow lawmakers during a hearing this week.

In general, the legal age of consent in Minnesota is 16, but the age is raised to 18 when it involves someone in authority, such as a teacher. The new proposal would raise that to 21 — but only for high school students who haven't graduated.

College students older than 18 would not be covered.

However, a different bill that has been introduced at the Legislature would extend the teacher-sex ban for 120 days after graduation.

In other words, no high school teachers would be allowed to have sex with their former students during the summer after graduation.

That's a real thing, too, said Caroline Palmer, public and legal affairs director for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

"What we hear about is teachers grooming students while they are students, but not trying to act on that until after graduation, when the teacher thinks it's safe," Palmer said.