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Armwood students’ bill boosts penalty for teacher-student sex

A group of Hillsborough County high school students can lay claim to helping enact a new state law addressing teacher-student sex.

The “Stop Harassing Underage Teens Act” passed the Senate on Wednesday after approval by the House and heads to Gov. Rick Scott for signature into law.

The measure (HB 485) increases criminal penalties for sex offenses “committed by an authority figure of a school against a student of the school.” That includes volunteers and administrators, as well as teachers.

The idea behind the bill came out of the “It Ought to be a Law” competition among students of Seffner’s Armwood High School in teacher Tony Pirotta’s U.S. Government class.

The idea first entered the competition in 2009 and won this year as the proposal to send to the Legislature, Pirotta said.

Several seniors also came to Tallahassee to argue for the bill and meet lawmakers and Gov. Scott’s staff, and watched as the bill finally passed Wednesday.

“This has been a humbling experience,” said Malikia Hunter, a 12th grader. “It’s been awesome to know that we made a difference.”

Debra Lafave, a former Greco Middle School teacher, made headlines years ago when she was charged with having sex with a 14-year-old boy.

More recently, a former Lakeland teacher faces charges in Polk and Hillsborough counties for having sex with two 17-year-old students.

Jake Raburn, R-Lithia, carried the bill in the House and Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, sponsored it in the Senate.

The bill’s message is “ ‘keep your hands off the kids,’ ” Stargel said.

Teachers and other authority figures “have a unique relationship with students,” she added. “With that relationship comes an increased responsibility.”

The law bumps up certain sex offenses by one degree, effectively enhancing penalties for authority figures who are convicted of sexual misconduct with students.

For example, “crimes that are currently second-degree misdemeanors would be prosecuted and penalized as a first degree misdemeanor, and so on,” according to a statement from Stargel’s office.

Once signed, the measure will take effect Oct. 1.

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