Bill to criminalize ‘grooming’ children moves forward

Arizona’s criminal justice system has failed 16-year-old Rylan Renowden, who says she was groomed by her teacher and softball coach. 

But there is passionate disagreement over what to do about it. Did her experience in being coerced into inappropriate text conversations and uncomfortable physical contact with an adult man simply not reach the threshold of sexual assault and fall through the cracks because of the inadequacy of existing law, or is it because law enforcement and prosecutors failed to use the laws on the books to seek the justice she deserves? 

Renowden and her family spoke to members of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning, urging them to support House Bill 2310, which would define “grooming” in state law. The legislation would make it a felony for an adult to “seduce, lure or entice” a minor to commit a crime, or attempt to do so with the end goal of sexually seducing or abusing the child. 

The Arizona Mirror doesn’t typically name the victims of sexual misconduct, but is doing so in this case because Renowden and her family shared her story in testimony advocating for HB2310.

Renowden told the committee that she was a 14-year-old freshman when her teacher and softball coach, who was 35 at the time, began giving her long hugs when no one else was around, telling her — unprompted — about the first time he engaged in oral sex and when he lost his virginity. He also told her that he looked forward to the future when they could drink and go on dates together, she said. 

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Once, he even pulled her out of class so that they could lay on his couch together and he groped her underneath her clothing, she told lawmakers. 

“I didn’t necessarily want to, but I didn’t protest,” she said. 

Renowden said she didn’t tell anyone about the teacher’s actions at the time, but that plenty of other students and teachers knew about it and reported it. The school did nothing, she said. 

She said she only heard from a school administrator after the police got involved, and was told that administrators could do nothing about the teacher’s behavior. 

Renowden’s mother, Brenda Renowden, told lawmakers that the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office declined to pursue the case because the teacher didn’t touch specific “hot zones,” meaning they couldn’t charge him with a sex crime. 

A representative from the county attorney’s office also told Brenda Renowden that, because her daughter didn’t “say no” to the teacher and coach who was more than twice her age, they couldn’t take the case, Renowden said. 

“I’m like, she’s 14, she didn’t know to say no,” Brenda Renowden said, through tears. “They said there’s no laws on the books to prosecute him.”

Karla Navarrete, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, told the Mirror that the office could not immediately provide information about the case and the office’s decisions regarding it without the teacher’s name and date of birth, which the Renowden family did not share. 

Rylan Renowden’s father, Robin Renowden, begged the representatives to move the proposed legislation forward, saying that this experience likely changed the trajectory of his daughter’s life and impacted her ability to trust people. 

Teachers at public schools whose inappropriate behavior toward students is reported to administrators or the State Board of Education can be held accountable for their actions through things like official censures and revocation of their teaching licenses, but the same accountability does not apply to private school teachers. Rylan Renowden attended a public school, but she did not name the school. She has since moved to a different school. 

So far, the man accused of grooming Rylan Renowden has spent around 180 days in jail, but only because he continues to violate a court order of protection that she obtained against him, the bill’s sponsor Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, said. 

The term “groomer” within the past several years has become a favorite slur from some on the far right to attack members of the LGBTQ community and their supporters — especially politically liberal school teachers — even if that person never had inappropriate interactions with a student. 

Even so, Grantham said his motives had nothing to do with attempting to attack teachers or anyone based on their sexual orientation, and that he sponsored the bill at the request of the Renowden family. 

“This is not a political issue,” he said. “Something has to be done to address what’s happening here.”

But opponents of the bill, including Vicki Lopez, a member of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said that there are already laws on the books that cover the behavior criminalized through the proposed bill. 

Those include statutes that criminalize luring a child for sexual exploitation, in addition to attempted luring and exploitation. Those crimes also include enhanced penalties for minors younger than 15. 

Lopez added that the behavior covered in the statute does not fit what experts generally describe as grooming, or an attempt to form a close relationship with a child with the intention of exploiting that relationship later. Grantham’s bill bill covers seduction, luring and enticement, Lopez said. 

“Those are blatant things covered by other statutes,” she said. 

Rep. Quang Nguyen, the Prescott Valley Republican who chairs the committee, asked Lopez why Rylan Renowden hasn’t gotten justice if existing laws are sufficient. 

“Something went wrong here,” Lopez said, adding that the missteps were on the part of the criminal justice system, not the victim. 

Lopez said that she sometimes interviews law enforcement officers whose understanding of existing laws are not accurate. 

“Why don’t we educate law enforcement?” Lopez asked. “Police need to be educated about how to utilize the law.”

The committee voted to accept an amendment to the bill that aims to ensure that teens who are three years or fewer apart in age and are engaged in a consensual relationship aren’t prosecuted through this proposed change.

The amendment also clarified that any enticement of a minor to engage in illegal activity would have to be aimed at grooming the child for a future sexual relationship. 

Rep. Analise Ortiz, who voted against the bill, said that too many survivors of sexual violence and abuse don’t get the justice they deserve because of failed law enforcement investigations.

“It seems like every aspect of the system failed this family,” Ortiz, a Phoenix Democrat, said, expressing her disappointment in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the absence of a representative of the office at the hearing to explain what happened. 

Ortiz said she appreciated Grantham’s willingness to make amendments to the bill to shore up any issues, including allowing for the distribution of biology textbooks that contain images of human sexual anatomy for educational purposes. 

The committee voted 6-2 to move the bill forward, with Democrat Melody Hernandez voting present, saying she would like to see more amendments to the bill before voting in favor of it. 

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