Legislation seeks to close school sex abuse loophole

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Sexual assault survivors, parents and other advocates urged lawmakers Thursday to close a loophole in state law they argue enabled a Concord High School teacher accused of abuse.

Primo "Howie" Leung was charged in April with sexually assaulting a student off school property in Massachusetts in 2015 and 2016. But school officials did not report him to police after he was seen kissing a different student in 2018 because state law allows teenagers 16 and older to consent to such contact if they are not being coerced.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on a pair of bills filed in response to the school district's handling of Leung, who has pleaded not guilty. But both sponsors, Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, and Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said they back an amendment offered by the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence combining elements of their proposed legislation.

The amendment would specifically criminalize sexual contact between primary or secondary school employees and any student, regardless of the student's age or the use of coercion. It also would criminalize sexual contact between teens ages 16 or 17 and anyone in a position of authority outside of school, including coaches, clergy and scout leaders.

Lyn Schollett, the coalition’s executive director, said current law fails to recognize that kissing is predatory behavior that adults use to groom young people for abuse and that school personnel have a unique level of access to and control over students.

“This bill addresses a common, purposeful and deeply dangerous behavior of sex offenders where they intentionally seek out environments with children, in which they have authority over children, to sexually abuse them, and then use that authority to ensure that child will remain silent,” she said. “As a society, we owe it to all children who we should be protecting to keep dangerous predators away from them.”

Paula Lesmerises told the committee the emotional trauma she suffered from being sexually assaulted as a child has remained with her, affecting her personal relationships and reactions to authority figures. The Associated Press doesn't generally identify victims of sexual assault, but Lesmerises spoke publicly about her experience.

“This abuse is happening far beyond the Howie Leung case,” she said. “Much more must be done to prevent sexual predators from gaining access to children.”

The committee also heard from Kate Frey, whose daughter, Ana Goble, was 13 when she reported concerns about favoritism and inappropriate behavior Leung displayed in 2015. Goble was suspended for spreading rumors, and Frey said the girls who later reported seeing Leung kissing the student were similarly discredited.

“Predators are very, very smart. They know how to manipulate. They know how to close ranks,” she said. “It’s terrifying when you can’t trust the very institution that was created to protect our children.”

The bills have the backing of Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. In a letter to the committee, he said he was extremely concerned with the Concord case.

“Every child deserves to go to school, be on the playing field, attend summer camp and visit a place of worship without being subject to predatory behavior by those who are supposed to be teaching or caring for them,” he wrote.