Editorials

20 years later, Puyallup teacher won’t face sex charges. But under wise new state law, others will

What is sexual violence?

Sexual violence is a social and public health problem in the U.S. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey says nearly 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men experienced sexual violence victimization other than rape at some point in their lives.
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Sexual violence is a social and public health problem in the U.S. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey says nearly 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men experienced sexual violence victimization other than rape at some point in their lives.

Stopping sex crimes against children requires serious vigilance. So does holding perpetrators accountable, including adults in positions of trust who groom kids for abuse. Justice must be firm, though it’s seldom fast. It can take years for victims to receive it — and sometimes, to demand it.

A man in his mid-30s recently won financial redress for nearly three years of abuse he says he endured in the late 1990s at the hands of a teacher and coach. The Puyallup School District settled with the former student for $1.5 million.

The former P.E. teacher? He wriggled off the hook. He won’t face charges, despite allegations he molested the teen on and off campus; wrote love letters to him; and urged him and other middle school boys to undress during sleepovers at his house.

Alas, criminal justice was denied in this and other cases because of Washington’s confusing web of deadlines for charging people with sex offenses. The statute of limitations has long hinged on factors such as the victim’s birthdate, age at the time of the crime and when it was reported to police.

The law ignored human brain biology; it didn’t allow for the fact that several years may pass before some victims fully process trauma and are ready to report it.

Meanwhile, an assailant could breathe easier knowing he couldn’t be prosecuted once an underage victim turned 30.

Now for some good news: Starting this summer, the script has flipped, and victims are the ones who can exhale. Washington lawmakers loosened the statute of limitations and eliminated it entirely for several sex crimes, such as child molestation, sexual misconduct with a minor and rape when a victim is under 16.

The Legislature adopted the law this year with just one “no” vote. It’s not retroactive, so the former Puyallup teacher still avoids criminal charges. But going forward, it serves notice to sleazeballs that their actions may come back to haunt them.

“What the Legislature has said is that it’s never too late for justice,” Julie Kays, the former Puyallup student’s attorney, told us Monday.

Kays said her client filed suit against the school district last year, empowered by disclosures during the #MeToo movement as well as the scandal that brought down USA Gymnastics’ longtime team doctor.

The Tacoma lawyer said it’s difficult for many sex-assault victims to report life-changing trauma in the arbitrary time frame prescribed by law. “The timing is never right, and it’s messy and complicated to get there,” said Kays, who prosecuted sexual-assault cases in King County for 11 years. “Certainly there should be criminal justice as well as civil justice. I’m glad that the criminal side is catching up with the civil side.”

While schools aren’t the only place where predatory grooming occurs, it’s all the more appalling when teachers betray their trust and get away with it — and all the more courageous when former students go public and fight for change.

In 2018 and 2019, Lisa Flotlin told legislators about being lured into a sexual relationship with a high school Spanish teacher when she was 16 — how he plied her with gifts, alcohol, inappropriate text messages and pornography.

Her shame and fear eventually subsided and, at age 25, she was ready to tell police. “Each year I grew older, the memories became more and more repulsive,” Flotlin, now 29, told the Senate Law & Justice Committee in February.

Under the state’s sex-crime matrix, she had only three years to report the abuse, though if she’d filed a police report within a year of the incident, authorities would’ve had 10 years to prosecute.

Follow all that? No wonder victims feel lost in the matrix.

Providing light at the end of the tunnel for sex-assault victims, many who’ve lurched in the dark for years, was a bipartisan triumph of this year’s Legislature.

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