Sex offense law in Maryland has loophole

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Montgomery County teacher Scott Spear remained on paid administrative leave as he sought to get back his job. Spear was placed on leave without pay May 29 after originally being put on paid leave, schools spokesman Dana Tofig said. This version has been corrected.

The allegations were nearly the same in both cases: Two Maryland teachers, who also were school coaches, were accused of having sex with high school students.

But because of a gap in Maryland’s sex-offenselaws, the two recent and separate cases had very different outcomes.

Jeffrey Sears, 30, taught English full time and coached at Glen Burnie High School in Anne Arundel County.

Over two years, he had sexual relations with three female students who attended the school, including sex acts in his classroom with a 16-year-old, police said. During a single month last fall, he sent that girl more than 600 text messages, phone records showed.

He was sentenced in April to seven years in prison and ordered to register as a sex offender.


Allegations against Jeffrey Sears, 30, and Scott Spear, 47, were nearly the same, but the outcomes of their cases were markedly different. (Left: Anne Arundel police. Right: Montgomery County police)

Scott Spear, 47, worked in Montgomery County and was accused of having sex off campus with a girl from Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. He taught full time at a nearby middle school, where he had met the girl, but worked only part time as a coach at the girl’s high school.

Prosecutors dropped the case against Spear, who denied having sex with the girl, within weeks of his February arrest because of that part-time status, they said.

“If this sounds absurd, it’s because it is. The law has a major flaw,” said Kristin Fleckenstein, spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel state’s attorney’s office.

Maryland law prohibits sexual contact between “full-time permanent” school employees who are in a “position of authority” over a minor student at the school at which they work. The law lists principals, vice principals, teachers and school counselors as the posts covered.

As a part-timer at the girl’s current school, Spear fell outside those lines.

The case is not unique. The same legal hurdle arose last fall in Anne Arundel in the case of a part-time coach at a Catholic high school and in 2010 in Carroll County with a part-time teacher at a public high school. Those teachers were taken to court — but only after investigators discovered evidence of crimes beyond the reported sexual liaisons.

“Bottom line: There is a gap in the law,” said Karla Smith, head of the division that prosecutes child sex-abuse cases in Montgomery.

Similar Virginia and District laws do not restrict bans to “permanent” school employees, according to prosecutors in those jurisdictions. They focus on the supervisory role of the adult and include acts by coaches.

Parents “don’t send their kids to school to have to worry about being hit on by coaches and teachers — whether they work 20 hours part time or 40 hours full time,” said David Daggett, former deputy state’s attorney in Carroll. “The impact is just as devastating in these situations. The law should be that if you’re employed by the school, it’s hands-off the students.”

Part time or full time

Spear was a full-time teacher at Julius West Middle School in Rockville when he was arrested in February. He had met and taught the girl in his case there, a police affidavit says.

But Spear was only a part-time coach at the high school the 16-year-old attended when the alleged sex took place in 2011 .

At the age of 16, the girl had reached Maryland’s age for consensual sex. The two alleged acts with Spear occurred at a private home after school hours with the girl’s agreement, a police report says.

That combination of circumstances put Spear’s case outside the definition of the fourth-degree sex offense for which he had been arrested, prosecutors said.

Dropping the Spear case “was not done due to an inability to move forward on the evidence. Rather, it is solely due to a technicality in Maryland’s law,” the Anne Arundel state’s attorney’s office said. Anne Arundel took on the Spear case to avoid a conflict of interest; Montgomery State’s Attorney John J. McCarthy knows Spear, said Seth Zucker, a spokesman for McCarthy.

When Spear spoke with police before his February arrest, he denied having intercourse with the girl, according to a police affidavit.

Spear told a detective that “the victim and he were very close and did communicate frequently during school hours, after school hours and on weekends,” including times when he drove the girl home after track practice, the affidavit states.

Steven VanGrack, Spear’s attorney, said prosecutors “are certainly correct to say that the case was dropped due to a technicality, and nobody likes a loophole. So on the one hand, we are thrilled the case did not go forward. But he also would have liked the chance to confront his accuser.”

VanGrack declined to allow Spear to be interviewed for this report but said Spear was “a revered coach in the community and is devastated by these accusations.”

Spear “has said to me that he has done nothing illegal or inappropriate with any student or with any athlete,” said VanGrack, who is trying to have the police file that led to the charge released under the state’s open-records law.

A 19-year veteran of Montgomery public schools, Spear has asked to return to his classroom, VanGrack said. He was placed on leave without pay May 29 after originally being put on paid leave, schools spokesman Dana Tofig said.

‘A perennial problem’

The gap in the law was created in 2006 after the state Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee sponsored a one-line amendment to a House bill on sexual contact with students. The amendment passed in a rapid-fire and unanimous floor vote, according to an audio recording of the vote.

The amendment added the description “full-time permanent employee” — restrictive wording that advocates against sexual assault have said is inadequate and have repeatedly tried to change.

“It’s a perennial problem,” said Lisae Jordan, director of the Sexual Assault Legal Institute of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “When I give speeches to the public and talk about this, they are certain I must be wrong.”

Prosecutors in the Spear case said that “while what happened in this case [is] not a crime under the Maryland statutes, we believe the legislature did not intend to exempt coaches from manipulating students in this fashion.”

Reconsidering law

There have been attempts to recast Maryland law to include part-time teachers and coaches, but those have failed, partly because of concerns that volunteers might avoid giving their time if they risked false accusations, according to three lawyers and an advocate.

A Senate bill introduced this year by Sen. Verna L. Jones-Rodwell (D-Baltimore) would have expanded penalties to coaches, including volunteers, who have sexual contact with minor students.

Her bill would have covered coaches as young as 18 — an age threshold that previously tripped up legislation. By setting an age so low, the state would criminalize relationships between teenagers that otherwise would not be a crime, such as might occur between a 19-year-old high school graduate who volunteers to coach a recreational school team that includes his 16-year-old girlfriend.

Bryan Alston, Jones-Rodwell’s legislative director, said the office “pulled the bill to rework it.” Among the changes being weighed, Alston said, is whether the bill should set 21 as the age for coaches who would be covered.

Several Maryland prosecutors said they have pushed their state legislative delegations to address the legal gap. But “it may take the public and schools getting in there, too, since legislators get tired hearing from prosecutors,” said Daggett, the former Carroll prosecutor.

“We can talk about this as a crime,” Daggett said, “but it would be even more effective if the argument was coming from groups pushing for it as a way to protect students. “

Staff writer Dan Morse contributed to this report.

Mary Pat Flaherty works on investigative and long-range stories. Her work has won numerous national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
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