With more students going to college early, a Utah lawmaker wants to explicitly prohibit professors from sexual contact with students age 17 or under

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students wait in line outside the Marriott Library on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016.

A conservative state lawmaker wants to add college professors to the list of trusted adults who, under Utah law, face steeper criminal penalties if they are convicted of having sexual contact with children age 17 or younger.

Teachers and coaches at K-12 schools are already included in the statute. But Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, believes there’s a gap that doesn’t cover higher education — particularly as more students graduate from high school early and head to universities sooner.

“As we’re moving more minors into college, we want to make sure it’s the policy of this state that those students are protected,” he said of HB287.

In Utah, about 20,000 students start their freshman year of college under the age of 18. That’s roughly 8 percent of the population for the state’s universities, including private schools, such as Brigham Young University or Westminster College.

Ivory offered those statistics as proof that the amended language was needed. And the House voted 67-6 to pass the measure Tuesday.

The language is expanded to explicitly prohibit professors, instructors and teaching assistants from having any kind of sexual or romantic relationship with minors. “This deals with what we call the predatory professor,” the lawmaker said.

If a person is convicted of sexual abuse of a child in Utah, it’s considered an additional aggravating factor if the defendant is an adult on the list of positions “of special trust.” That can mean enhanced penalties, such as longer jail time.

Ivory said there wasn’t a specific case of underage abuse that happened at a college Utah that spurred his bill — though he mentioned the recent allegations of assault, harassment and emotional abuse by professors in Utah State University’s piano department. Those allegations date from 2004 to 2017 but, from The Salt Lake Tribune’s reporting, do not seem to include any students under the age of 18. Among its responses, the university has reassigned classes from a professor there and removed the coordinator of its Title IX office.

The lawmaker said there doesn’t need to be an example in the state to indicate there’s a potential problem. He said he searched the words “professors and sex abuse” on Google and there were 1.2 million results.

“The trust positions are abused,” Ivory added. “When a child is sexually abused, their future is stolen from them. Criminally, we should recognize a punishment.”

His original bill applied the aggravated penalties to professors who had sexual contact with any student, regardless of age, because instructors hold a position of power. But he amended the bill to cover only children age 17 or younger.

Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Taylorsville, spoke against the measure Tuesday. She’s an associate professor of psychology at Salt Lake Community College and said most universities in the state already have those types of rules in place — so the proposal would be redundant.

“I want to make sure that we’re not putting too many restrictions on institutions that already have those policies,” she said.

Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, wondered if the catchall provision already in the state’s law — that includes “any individual in a position of authority, other than those individuals listed” — was sufficient.

Ivory said he thinks it’s important to spell out that college professors would be included. And Miles voted in favor. The measure now goes the Senate for consideration.