Lawmakers approve calling coaches school employees

Quick action comes after court dismissed charge against coach

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DES MOINES - The Iowa Legislature approved a last-minute law to redefine coaches as school employees after the Iowa Supreme Court cleared a high school coach who had consensual sex with a 16-year-old student.

Some fear unintended consequences from rushing the legislation.

The Iowa House approved the bill unanimously Wednesday, and the Iowa Senate approved it unanimously Thursday. It now awaits a signature from Gov. Terry Branstad.

The April 11 Iowa Supreme Court ruling raised eyebrows.

The Court ordered sexual exploitation by a school employee charges dropped against Patrick Ryan Nicoletto, 36, a former high school basketball coach for the Davis County Community School district.

Nicoletto had a months-long sexual relationship with a student.

In Iowa, the age of consent is 16 as long as the minor is not being coerced. Nicoletto lost his job after the district court’s guilty verdict, but he faced no other criminal penalties.

The Supreme Court reversed the ruling saying Nicoletto had a coaching authorization but no teaching license, and he therefore did not meet the definition of a school employee as defined by Iowa law.

In Iowa, 10,682 people fall into what some are calling a “loophole” with an active coaching authorization but no teaching license.

The ruling quickly earned a response from Branstad, school officials and others who said the law puts Iowa’s children at risk by shielding people in a position of trust from criminal penalties.

Branstad called for an amendment before the legislative session ends, and the dissenting Court opinion in the 5-2 ruling said “the ball is now in the Legislature’s court ... to close this new loophole.”

“The Supreme Court ruling weakens protections for 16 and 17 year old high school students that participate in extracurricular activities,” said Mike Cormack, a policy liaison for the Iowa Department of Education who has been working on the legislation.

The bill came together quickly. It was only introduced Wednesday.

“There needs to be a very clear message, if you have a coaching authorization, you can’t have sex or sexual contact with students,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids and chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

J. Keith Rigg, the attorney who successfully defended Nicoletto, said the law is being rushed too quickly to get done before the legislative session adjourns.

As-is, the law will include unintended consequences, he said.

People who hold coaching authorizations are often not much older than the people they are coaching. And, their coaching colleagues will be compelled to report them because coaches are mandatory reporters.

“How many small high schools in Iowa rely on young kids staying in the community and volunteering after they graduate?” Rigg said. “You get an 18-year-old kid dating an 18 year old senior, and (the coach) is going to jail for five years and has to register as a sex offender. You can say common sense will prevail, but the first angry parent who asks why they’re not getting charged, and the person is getting charged.”

Rigg said he supports adding coaching authorizations to the law, but it should have an age differential such that the coach would have to be at least three years older for it to be a violation.

Hogg said he’s heard that argument, but there should be a line between the coaches and students.

“If they are 18 or 19, there’s nothing that stops them from coaching, but they can’t date a student, period,” Hogg said.

School officials in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City said while the ruling was concerning, schools run background checks for people with coaching authorizations, and they clearly state boundary expectations for coaches.

“We still do background checks on coaches and would respond the same as any other teacher, coach, or other staff member for allegations of inappropriate conduct with students,” Jill Cirivello, executive director of human resources, said in a statement issued via email from the school spokeswoman. “(The new legislation) doesn’t change how we conduct our investigations or ultimate actions.”

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