Gina Rose Napolitano, a senior at Wheaton College, recently testified in favor of two bills being filed by Sen. Joan Lovely. Senator Lovely has filed legislation that would raise the age of consent from 16 to 19 for sexual contact between educators and students of the same school district. For students with special needs, the age of consent would be 22. The law would also affect employees of state social service agencies. Napolitano chose to testify about a relationship in her past to support the law, and work towards safer legislation for young people in Massachusetts. Mark Sternman, Lovely’s legislative and policy director, said a total of nine people, including the senator herself, testified in favor of Lovely’s bills. Those who shared testimony included youth advocates, experts, and three individuals, including Napolitano, who identified as victims of educator abuse.
Napolitano, then 15, entered a relationship with a teacher at her high school, Caleb Parsons, then 23, from her sophomore year at MacDuffie school into her first year of college. Recently, she was made aware that he continues to work with young people, directing community theatre in New Hampshire. As a result, she made the decision to go back to the police and go public with the story, in an effort to help other youth out of potentially dangerous situations.
The first time they had sexual contact, she was 16. When the Granby police, alerted to her situation through an anonymous tip, spoke to her, both parties came to the realization that her allegations were not considered criminal under Massachusetts consent law. Law officials, youth advocates, and Sen. Lovely all believe that current law does not account for the power imbalance. Napolitano, who is currently working towards a degree in Secondary Education and English, is unsure if she wants to continue to teach in Massachusetts if the laws are not rectified.
“Survivors of this abuse have their development and education disrupted, they feel worthless, and they are manipulated into thinking that their abuser genuinely cares about their well-being,” Napolitano said at the hearing. “In my case, a grown man harmed me repeatedly over multiple years and when I finally gathered the courage to come forward about my abuse at the age of 20, I was told by the police that what he did to me was legal in the state of Massachusetts.”
Napolitano said the experience exacerbated existing mental health problems, including severe anxiety and depression. She said she told Parsons she had attempted suicide in the past. At the hearing, Napolitano said she suffered from PTSD and a lingering distrust of men that has taken therapy to address. For Napolitano, civil charges against Parsons are a possibility she is considering. In the event she files a civil suit, she plans to demand that Parson relinquish any current positions where he had access to children under the age of 18 and avoid taking such jobs in the future.
Criminal cases could result in jail time, which Lovely hopes will be a stronger deterrent in the event her proposed legislation passes. Unfortunately for Napolitano, there is no retroactive language in the bill as it stands.