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Elsie Arntzen

Elsie Arntzen, superintendent for the Office of Public Instruction, responds to reporters' questions at her office in Helena.

In November, Montana's Board of Public Education revoked the license of a former Ronan middle school teacher who was accused of having a sexual relationship with a high school student who was 18. 

It's a devastating career impact for a teacher, effectively wiping out their ability to teach in Montana. But the state's top school official wants to add criminal teeth. 

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen is asking legislators to ban consensual sex between school employees — from teachers to custodians to volunteers — and students, even if students are 18. The move is similar to laws in several other states that have been challenged in court but mostly upheld.

The change would come under a section of code that defines consent and bans sex and sexual contact between prison guards and inmates — in part, an acknowledge that the proposal is built from an understanding that teachers and students have an inherently unequal power dynamic. 

Ronan

Klapmeier said that the Ronan case was an example of why the law needs to be changed, but not a catalyst for Arntzen's move. 

In Montana, the Office of Public Instruction is tasked with investigating conduct that might cause a teacher to lose their license, including "immoral conduct." The Board of Public Education, a board of governor appointees, hears cases and rules on them. 

Klapmeier said that cases of sexual conduct between school staff and students that have reached Montana's 16-year-old age of consent are troublesome for the agency.

“Those for years have been the most challenging and time consuming and then ultimately having negative impacts on our schools,” he said. 

It's unclear exactly how many there are, but they appear to be rare. 

Zachary Rowan, Ronan's sixth-grade English teacher and high school boys basketball coach, was the only teacher in the last five years to have his license revoked because of sexual conduct, Klapmeier and Board of Public Education director Pete Donovan said. 

In that time span, only one other teacher had their license revoked — in that case, for falsifying documents used to obtain licensure. There has been one license suspension for immoral conduct, and five license surrenders during that period. Most of those cases have been in the last two years, Klapmeier said. 

Rowan's case came to light after a Ronan teacher approached an administrator saying that a student had told her about a relationship between a high school girls basketball player and Rowan. 

Rowan was placed on paid suspension and soon resigned. In the investigation, district administrators found a journal that matched a student account and appeared to contain information about the relationship. 

Administrators concluded that Rowan was having a sexual relationship with the student, but with his resignation, "we stopped going forward," Ronan superintendent Mark Johnston told the board at the hearing. 

Montana law requires district to pass cases of immoral conduct to OPI, which then began building a case to go after Rowan's license to teach. 

Johnston told the board that both of the student's parents initially denied that the relationship was real before later admitting that it was. 

The girl's father said that he didn't know what could be done because the girl was 18, and didn't think he had to say anything because she was 18, Johnston said.  

OPI also had Rowan's ex-girlfriend testify, who said that she believed Rowan was in a sexual relationship at the time, in part because of things she saw while moving out of their shared residence, like a used condom. 

The board unanimously revoked Rowan's license. It requires a lower evidentiary standard than criminal courts. 

License revocations matter because if an educator is fired from a school, he or she may be able to get another teaching job. 

A Shepherd High School teacher was placed on administrative leave in January and later resigned after past accusations of sexual misconduct at his previous teaching job in Washington surfaced.

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He received a Montana teaching license before last school year without incident, as his Washington teaching license was intact and he wasn't charged with a crime. 

Courts

An Alabama judge sparked something of an uproar when he struck down that state's law against teacher-student sex, including for consenting adults, in 2017. 

It didn't last long. The state supreme court overturned his decision and issued a reprimand less than a year later. 

A similar law in Washington has also survived a legal challenge

In at least one state, however, courts have disagreed. 

The Arkansas supreme court overturned the state's law banning sex between teachers and students. A justice called the teacher's actions "reprehensible," but the court ruled that the state could not criminalize sex between consenting adults. 

OPI has requested that a national research group compile information on state-by-state policies on the topic. Klapmeier said that the superintendent and OPI's legal counsel are confident that there won't be any constitutional problems with the proposal. 

Eric Feaver, who leads the state teachers union, said that he doesn't foresee the union opposing the move. 

“Inappropriate sexual behavior between teacher and student is in our opinion banned by the profession itself,” he said. “So long as due process is followed… I don’t have a problem with that.

“(Students) should be safe from all predatory criminal acts.”

The proposal would also prohibit schools from offering information about an employee who engaged in sexual conduct with a student that could help that employee get a new job. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.