Salem-Keizer teachers and staff were recently told that when they learn, or suspect, a student is sexually active, they must report it to law enforcement or state officials.
Some students, teachers and parents are upset with the requirement, so much so that more than 550 people signed a digital petition to Paul Kyllo, the school board chairman, demanding the practice be stopped.
The requirement falls under Oregon's mandatory reporting and child abuse laws. They're meant to protect children, but the district's clarification of the law is being criticized for being applied to sexually active, consenting teens.
Under Oregon law, any person younger than 18 is unable to give consent, so any sexual activity is considered abuse and needs to be reported.
But most school districts in Oregon don't require teachers and other staff to report students believed to be having sex. The Statesman Journal contacted districts around the state, from Portland to Eugene to Bend, and none followed mandatory reporting to this degree.
Kimberly Schott, a student at McNary High School in Keizer, said it's really about trust. She fears the requirement leaves students without an adult at school they can confide in.
"This leaves students with no one," Schott wrote in the petition she spearheaded. "The students no longer have that safe teacher they can talk to. Instead, the students must find a way to be sneaky and hide so that they don't get reported, which could lead to several more issues."
More than 40 percent of high school students said they have had sex in a survey by the Center for Disease Control. In Salem-Keizer, more than 11,800 students are in that age bracket.
Schott first heard about the reporting rule, believing it to be a new district policy, when her health teacher voiced frustrations. Schott said the teacher was mostly upset because the reporting rule applies if an employee learns of their own children being sexually active.
Schott and other students organized a protest at the Oregon Capitol last week and plan to hold another.
Dylan Schott, Kimberly's father, said while he doesn't condone teen sexual activity, he believes in fewer "government involvements in our personal lives and more personal responsibility for training our children to be good citizens."
Responsibilities of a mandatory reporter
All Salem-Keizer School District employees are mandatory reporters.
They are required to file a report with the Department of Human Services, a law enforcement agency or school resource officer if they have "reasonable cause" to believe a child is being abused.
Another Oregon law, ORS 163.345, or the "three-year rule," addresses when the individuals are similar in age and force and coercion are not present. This often thought of as "consensual" activity.
While this law can be applied in criminal proceedings, it does not apply to mandatory reporting.
Teachers in Salem-Keizer are required to attend various training sessions every year, which Superintendent Christy Perry said are typically rolled out in August.
One of the required sessions is on child abuse, which includes information on mandatory reporting. Perry said multiple employees have learned of sexual activities or incidents and asked, "Is this something we report?"
"We felt like we hadn't made it clear enough," Perry said.
Perry said the lack of clarity prompted the district to create an additional presentation on when an employee must file a report, which was sent to staff in October.
Perry thinks the separate presentation this year may have made people think it was a new, district-specific policy, but it isn't.
The district provided staff a handful of examples in the presentation of when an employee needs to report:
- A 15-year-old student comes to your office and tells you that she is having sex with her boyfriend and would like to talk with someone about birth control options.
- Your 17-year-old son tells you that his 16-year-old girlfriend is pregnant.
- A 14-year-old boy confides in you that he was kicked out of the house after his parents discovered that he was in a same-sex relationship. During the conversation, the student shares that he has engaged in sexual acts with his partner.
- You overhear a group of students discussing a party they attended the prior weekend. The students comment that one of their classmates who attended the party had been too drunk to walk and ended up in a bedroom with an individual who attends a different high school. There is a rumor going around that they “hooked up."
What happens after a report is filed
When a report is filed, including on "consensual" sexual activity, the Department of Human Services may thank the individual for the report and do nothing, or they may file it away to examine later. Or the report could be addressed immediately, Perry said, which could include a department representative and/or law enforcement officer coming to the school.
The schools and district then wait for a directive from the agency or police before taking further action, Perry said. The district does not track the number of reports made.
If it's found teachers have withheld information, they can be fined, investigated by the state Teachers Standards and Practices Commission and potentially lose their job.
"It's criminal not to report," said Lillian Govus, a spokeswoman for Salem-Keizer. "People's careers are at stake here."
Deborah Carnaghi, a program coordinator for Child Protective Services within Oregon's Department of Human Services, said they set a low bar for reporting, describing it as a rather-safe-than-sorry approach. She said the bar is much higher for keeping the case in the system and higher still for them to go knocking on someone's door.
But while this approach may help catch some otherwise unresolved cases of abuse, it also poses an issue of students not having someone to talk to about important, potentially life-changing topics.
"You can't have a conversation about safe sex without talking about sex," Carnaghi said.
Breaking student trust
Mindy Merritt, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, said educators are worried they are either going to get in trouble for under-reporting or their students will end up with no one to confide in.
"How can we ensure we're building trust?" Merritt asked.
Perry agreed that is the difficult part of the statutes, adding she does not know the legislative intent behind the laws nor if that was considered.
Perry said teachers need to create safe spaces for kids, while also understanding what the law requires.
But Angel Hudson, a McNary junior who signed the petition, said the reporting rules undermine that sense of safety.
"I lose the ability to have a private conversation with a trusted adult who works for the district, about something personal to me," Hudson wrote in a letter to Perry. "Talking about sexual activity between teachers and students should be confidential."
Educators can point students toward community resources for additional questions and information. Some domestic violence shelter staff, for example, are not mandatory reporters specifically for this reason.
Perry said students can still ask questions in class, or when speaking with a teacher or counselor. But if the student specifically references their own sexual activity in context to the comment or question, the teacher is responsible for reporting it.
Responding to the students' petition and protest, Perry said the district respects their right to protest. She said rallying at the Capitol was a good choice because state laws begin with the Legislature.