Age issue questioned in teacher-student sex law

DALLAS — The arrest of a high school teacher for allegedly having sex with an 18-year-old student has raised questions about the age constraints of the state’s three-year-old law criminalizing student-teacher sexual relationships.

Amy McElhenney, 25, was arrested May 25 and charged with having an improper relationship with a student. The Spanish teacher and former Miss Texas contestant faces up to 20 years in prison.
But some lawmakers say the Hebron High School student’s status as a legal adult should exempt McElhenney from the felony charge.

State Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, wrote the Texas law in 2003 that criminalizes sex between educators and students. But she said she wanted the law to apply only to students 17 and younger — uncomfortable with making sex between two legal, consenting adults a felony.

"I feel differently about 17-year-olds than I do about 18-year-olds," Giddings said. "I don’t necessarily believe the penalty for the two should necessarily be the same."

But other legislators added amendments to Giddings’ bill when it reached the floor of the House, making it illegal for educators to have sexual relationships with students of any age. Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, proposed dropping the age limit, arguing that teachers wield a power over students that diminishes the pupils’ ability to consent.

"If they’re a student, I just think they’re off bounds regardless of their age," Chisum said. "I felt like if we didn’t do that, we just virtually made it open season on students that are 18 years old."

Neither McElhenney nor her attorney could immediately be reached for comment.

The woman’s arrest attracted national media interest — which did not surprise Carrollton police Sgt. Pat Murphy, who cited the sensational elements of the case.

"It’s about what I expected for what this case is," Murphy said of the media blitz. "You’ve got a teacher that was a beauty pageant contestant that is accused of having sex with a student."

But McElhenney’s arrest also prompted debates around the nation concerning Texas’ law and the criminality of student-teacher relationships when the pupil is a legal adult.

"It’s a little harsh, even for Texas law," defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman told The Dallas Morning News. Lichtman discussed the case on a Fox news show.

He called the law "a little heavy handed, and it seems like a flavor-of-the-moment law."

Dallas lawyer Jim Moore said he felt the age issue would make jurors less likely to sentence a defendant to the 20-year prison term for an alleged relationship with a consenting adult. Moore represents a Garland school district teacher accused of having such a relationship in 2005.

"It’s going to be real interesting to see what a jury thinks about this legislation," Moore said.

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