Old case left loophole for teacher sex

On Sept. 7, three days before two Clark County teachers were arrested on accusations of having sex with a Henderson high school student, the Pahrump educator who was the catalyst for Nevada’s law against such acts was paroled after serving 16 years of a life sentence for raping a student. (Related story)

An investigation found former Nye County teacher Joseph Peterson, 67, may have had sex with more than 60 students over 20 years.

If not for the outrage spurred by Peterson, it would be legal for Nevada teachers to sleep with students who are older than 16, the state’s age of consent.

One of the two Clark County teachers arrested earlier this month on allegations of engaging in group sex with a 16-year-old Basic High School student has been charged under the Peterson-inspired law, passed in 1997. John Stalmach, a Dailey Elementary School teacher, admitted to sex with the girl, according to his arrest report. The teen confirmed it.

The other teacher in the alleged threesome, Brown Junior High English teacher Bambi Dewey, disclosed nothing to investigators. She faces other charges, but isn’t accused of violating the teacher/student sex law.

The reason the charge may not stand against Stalmach is the law itself.

"He abused his authority but likely won’t be punished for it," said attorney Patricia Lee, chairwoman of the Nevada Crime Commission, which advises the governor.

Lee cited a loophole in the statute: A teacher, administrator, coach or volunteer is prohibited from having sex with a student "enrolled in or attending the school at which the person is employed or volunteering." Although Stalmach met the student while previously teaching at Brown, he wasn’t her teacher at Basic or in a position of authority over her when the acts in question occurred, according to school district officials.

Marc Cook, a Las Vegas attorney who’s worked several cases involving the teacher/student sex law, agreed it’s unlikely Stalmach would be convicted on that charge.

"The defense will probably file an action to dismiss," he said.

Calls to Stalmach’s lawyer, Damian Sheets, were not returned.

So, why did the Legislature limit the law to teachers and students at the same school?

It didn’t start out that way, said state Sen. Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, who introduced the bill in 1997. He pushed for the law at the request of Terri Miller, a Pahrump mother who lobbied for it after Peterson was convicted. She wanted the age of consent raised to 18.

"Such a bill would not pass," Mc­Ginness told lawmakers during 1997 deliberations, according to state records. Instead, McGinness proposed a bill making it illegal for teachers to have sex with students, including those up to age 18 because some are still in high school at that age. Whether the perpetrator and the victim were at the same school initially wasn’t a factor.

"But I had to back off to get the bill passed," he said.

He had to amend the bill to leave out 18-year-olds, add the same-school requirement and exempt married couples. But the law has still led to the convictions of many teachers, and for that he said he’s proud.

If the law made it illegal for teachers to have sex with 16- and 17-year-old students regardless of the school, it would probably be deemed unconstitutional, Lee said. That would effectively raise the age of consent to 18 for an entire group just because of their profession, which is discrimination, she said. That was also the concern of several law­makers in 1997, according to state records.

That being said, the Legislature’s intent was to prevent teachers from abusing their power over students – controlling their grades and sports eligibility – for sex, she said.

"The fact of the matter is (the student) holds Stalmach in a position of authority," Lee noted. "She still calls him coach."

But the law is on Stalmach’s side, Lee said, suggesting the Legislature should expand the existing law to make it illegal for teachers to have sex with either current or former students who are younger than 18.

"The defense certainly has a good argument," she said.

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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