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Vt. law aims to protect teens from sex abuse - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Vt. law aims to protect teens from sex abuse

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

Burlington-based HOPE Works counsels survivors of sexual violence. Fourteen percent of its clients are men.

"It's particularly difficult for them to come forward because people are really not aware of the fact that men can be sexually assaulted," said Cathleen Wilson, who heads HOPE Works.

Wilson says cultural double standards surrounding sex are tough to combat in cases with male victims and female perpetrators. She says recent allegations against 44-year-old Giovanna Yaranga-- a Burlington High School Spanish teacher charged with having a sexual relationship with her 17-year-old student-- highlight these societal attitudes.

"We as a society have a tendency to be congratulatory to that young male as if this encounter should be either rite of passage or something they should have enjoyed," Wilson said.

But in the eyes of the law, the teacher's alleged actions are criminal.

"We look at the facts and circumstances of the case. That is what drives our investigation and how we deal with it. Gender does not play a role in the decisions we make," said Sgt. Dennis Duffy of the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations.

Yaranga was charged with sexual exploitation of a minor. The 2009 statute was added during an overhaul of the state's sex abuse laws, prompted by the high-profile rape and murder of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett.

"What the Legislature found is that there were too many instances where teachers and counselors and coaches were having sexual relationships with their students and there was no way to criminalize that conduct because the age of consent had been 16," explained Cheryl Hanna of the Vermont Law School.

Twinfield High School teacher John Buttura was the first to be prosecuted days after the law passed. Police could finally arrest the shop teacher for engaging in an ongoing sexual relationship with a 16-year-old female student.

"Now, if a teacher or someone in a position of authority and a student engage in a sex act it is against the law because they are abusing their power," Vt. State Police Sgt. Ingrid Jonas said.

The statute only protects kids in that gray area between the age of consent and the age of adulthood; meaning it is illegal for a teacher to have sex with a 16- or 17-year-old student. But police cannot criminalize the same relationship if the student is 18.

"Once a student reaches 18 it's much harder to criminalize that conduct because the court has said you have a right to some sexual privacy," Hanna said.

Sexual exploitation of a minor is punishable by a maximum of five years in prison. Yaranga, if convicted, is facing up to 20 years because prosecutors have charged her with four counts of exploitation.

While there's nothing illegal about a teacher engaging in a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old student, it does violate professional conduct rules. The state of Vermont has a set of rules that applies to all licensed educators. It clearly outlines that committing or soliciting a sex act from any elementary or secondary student, regardless of age, is considered unprofessional conduct. A teacher's license could also be revoked for even encouraging a romantic relationship with a student, whether it's physical, written or verbal.

The Department of Education could not say what actions, if any, it's taking in the Yaranga case.

Yaranga has denied the allegations and remains on paid administrative leave.

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