Utah Legislature votes to boost criminal penalties for professors who have sexual contact with students younger than 18

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Corrections crews at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Sept. 19, 2018. The Legislature passed a bill subjecting college and university professors and instructors to harsher penalties for the crime of having sex with underage students.

With little debate, the Utah Senate gave final approval Wednesday to a bill that would 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 17-years old or younger.

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

“We have more and more of our under-18 youth attending our universities and our colleges and we want to make sure that it was clear that none of [the professors] should be engaging in sexual intercourse with any of our children under the age of 18," said Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, the bill’s Senate sponsor.

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

The language in HB287 is expanded to explicitly prohibit professors, instructors and teaching assistants from having any kind of sexual or romantic relationship with minors. 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.

The bill passed the Senate with unanimous support and now goes to the governor for his signature.