Loophole in abuse ordinance targeted

Fixes sought in law that blocked charges in teacher sex cases

October 23, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Carroll County's superintendent of schools has asked that the Carroll legislative delegation work to close a loophole in Maryland law that hindered Frederick and Carroll counties from prosecuting child abuse charges against high school teachers accused of having sex with their students.

The loophole prevented Frederick County authorities from prosecuting a 40-year- old high school teacher who was accused in October last year of having sex with her 16-year-old student.

In Carroll, prosecutors did not proceed with 11 of 15 counts of sexual child abuse that had been filed against a substitute teacher from Francis Scott Key High, in part because of a 1997 opinion from the Maryland attorney general .

The opinion held that a teacher who has sex with a student cannot be charged with a crime if the student is at least 16 - the age of consent in Maryland - and if the sexual contact did not occur on school grounds, during a school day or during a school-sanctioned event.

"I think this will be a bigger problem statewide," Carroll interim Superintendent Charles I. Ecker told the county's Republican delegates and state senators yesterday at their annual legislative breakfast. "Frederick County has had problems. We've had problems. It is a real problem."

The substitute teacher from Key High, Kimberly L. Merson, pleaded guilty in July to the four remaining counts of sexual child abuse for having inappropriate sexual contact with the four boys, then ages 15 and 16. She was ordered last month to serve 18 months in the county jail and complete five years' probation.

State Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, whose district includes Carroll and Frederick counties, said he would reintroduce a bill he offered last year to close the loophole. A similar bill was introduced in the House of Delegates last year, but like Ferguson's Senate bill, it did not make it out of committee.

"I don't think we can ignore this anymore," Ferguson said yesterday. "Parents are talking about it. I know that legislators don't like opening a can of worms, but this can has already been opened. Now we need to do something about it."

He added that passing this bill "will be the No. 1 issue for both counties regarding education."

Tracy A. Gilmore, Carroll's deputy state's attorney who handled the Merson case, agreed that the change in law is much-needed.

"With Merson, there could have been more counts of child abuse that would have been a lot clearer," she said. "We still think that this could have been a test case to decide case law on this issue, but we eventually reached a satisfactory plea agreement and we didn't have to do that. But if the loophole was closed, there definitely would have been more child abuse counts."

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