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High Schooler Faced 25 Years on the Sex Offender Registry–For Engaging In Oral Sex

At a Pennsylvania school, an 18-year-old female student was arrested for a consensual sexual act with a 16-year-old boy.

High Schooler Faced 25 Years on the Sex Offender Registry–For Engaging In Oral Sex

At a Pennsylvania school, an 18-year-old female student was arrested for a consensual sexual act with a 16-year-old boy.

In February, 18-year-old Mariea Starr, a senior at Waynesboro Area Senior High School in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, faced a terrifying, life-altering punishment: the possibility of 25 years on the sex offender registry.

But the offense in question was not a sexual assault or the molestation of a child; instead, it stemmed from a Dec. 7 incident in which Starr was caught by another student allegedly performing oral sex on a boy in a school stairwell.

A female student told the school’s assistant principal that she witnessed Starr getting up from her knees in the stairwell while the boy quickly pulled up his pants, according to an affidavit of probable cause filed by Officer Matthew Gordon of the Waynesboro Area School District Police.

Because Starr had turned 18 two months before the incident and the boy she allegedly engaged in oral sex with, while also a high-school student, was a minor, Starr was charged with misdemeanor open lewdness and felony unlawful contact with minors which carries a Tier II sex offender designation.

Tier II sex offenders are considered a moderate risk of reoffending but are nonetheless subject to registration requirements for 25 years, including being photographed by Pennsylvania State Police twice a year.

While statutory sexual assault in Pennsylvania requires the victim to be under 16 years old and that there be more than a four-year age difference between the victim and the defendant, the charge of unlawful contact with minors stipliates only that the defendant be 18 years or older and the victim be under 18.

Gordon brought the case without oversight from the district attorney’s office or school district administration because in Pennsylvania some school police officers can file criminal charges through a magisterial district judge without DA review. The magisterial district judge holds a preliminary arraignment, where bail is set, and a preliminary hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed to the trial court level.

District attorneys prosecute these cases but are not required to take part in them until they reach the trial court level.

The point at which the district attorney gets involved depends on the charges and procedures set up by individual Pennsylvania counties.

Franklin County District Attorney Matthew Fogal told The Appeal that his office did not review Starr’s case until the preliminary hearing in March.

Furthermore, no one in the school district has the duty to review the possible penalties against students like Starr and make the decision to either support the student or approve the charges, according to Waynesboro Area School District Superintendent Todd Kline.

On April 11, however, Fogal reduced the charges against Starr to open lewdness. She was sentenced to 12 months’ probation and will not be placed on the registry.

Nonetheless, Starr will graduate from high school with a criminal record, which will significantly affect her educational and job opportunities. If she applies to college, Starr will have to disclose her conviction on her college application and will compete against students without a conviction. Her criminal conviction may also limit her ability to receive student financial aid. Students with a misdemeanor or felony conviction may be barred from receiving financial aid administered through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Administration, according to the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction. And when she enters the job market, Starr will be in the running against applicants who do not have a criminal record.

Starr is far from the only student that Gordon, the school police officer, has sent into the criminal justice system.

More than 70 student arrests have been made since Gordon’s tenure began in 2014, according to annual safety reports filed the district with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The likelihood that a disciplinary incident would result in an arrest or a referral to law enforcement increased roughly 21 percent in Gordon’s first three years as an officer compared to the three years before he began the job, safety reports show.

In 2016, Gordon, a retired Pennsylvania State Police trooper, filed misdemeanor forgery charges against two students for simply providing fake doctors notes to excuse their absence from school.

In one case, the student confessed to faking the notes before the end of the school year, but Gordon waited until after the student graduated to file charges.

Gordon also charged two students with possessing weapons on school grounds.

In both cases, however, a knife was found secured inside a vehicle on school grounds. There is no court record indicating that the students attempted to bring a weapon into the school, brandished it on school grounds or attempted to assault another student with a weapon.

In the most recent weapons possession case, the student told Gordon that he had been working on his vehicle but forgot to remove the knife before coming to school, according to an affidavit of probable cause filed by Gordon.

The Waynesboro school district created its own police in 2014 in a 5-4 vote, according to school board meeting minutes.

In a petition to form its police department, the district stated it needed a police officer to “protect the students, staff, and property … and maintain an orderly and safe learning environment.”

But annual safety reports, which date back to the 1999-2000 school year, show that there have been only two reported incidents where a firearm was brought on school grounds. And the district has never been involved in a school shooting situation.

One board member who voted against the measure argued it would lead to more criminal charges against students while another said she felt the district was treating students “like criminals,” according to the Herald-Mail.

“There is nothing that shows [police in schools] makes students safer,” Barbara Fedders, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, told The Appeal.

Fedders cited research by Jason Nance, a University of Florida Levin College of Law associate professor, that found that when police are present in school, disciplinary issues are much more likely to be referred to law enforcement instead of being handled internally. For example, 19 percent of attacks Nance reviewed in schools without a police officer were referred to law enforcement compared to 50 percent in schools with an officer.

In his paper “Students, Police, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” Nance pointed to evidence that police officers in schools can actually lead to more students feeling alienated, which can create distrust and in turn more disorder and violence.

“I worry that putting police in schools is going to seem like the moderate solution as we talk about things like arming teachers” in the wake of school shootings, Fedders said.

Indeed, the rate of student disciplinary incidents has increased since officer Gordon was hired in 2014, according to the annual safety reports. Twenty times as many students were issued citations and five times as many students received a probation sentence for incidents at the school district during the 2016-17 school year compared to the year before Gordon was hired, according to annual reports filed the district with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

This means that, along with a diploma, dozens of students will carry a criminal record with them as they graduate from high school.

'Whores Will Rise'

As part of International Whores' Day, hundreds gathered in New York City to protest new anti-sex work laws.

Dominique, part of the sex worker mutual care fund Lysistrata, speaking at International Whores Day, New York
Photo by the author

'Whores Will Rise'

As part of International Whores' Day, hundreds gathered in New York City to protest new anti-sex work laws.

Hundreds of sex workers and their supporters spilled into the streets around the historic Stonewall Inn on Saturday demanding an end to laws that endanger them. The New York City protest was part of International Whores’ Day (IWD), marking the anniversary of sex workers’ occupation of churches throughout France in 1975 in opposition to anti-prostitution policing. This year, the day took on new urgency with the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, a federal measure targeting online sex work signed into law by President Trump in April that has also galvanized sex workers across the United States. Spirited IWD protests were seen in cities including Chicago, Oakland, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis.

Since the passage of SESTA/FOSTA this spring, sex workers have reported an increase in encounters with abusive clients and with law enforcement, the result, they say, of the websites on which they advertise their services—like Cityvibe and Craigslist’s personals section— going offline due to fear of prosecution. In addition to losing their advertisements, online forums which sex workers relied on to share information about safer sex work and dangerous clients have explicitly barred sex workers in the United States, or simply disappeared. SESTA/FOSTA has pushed online sex work further to the margins, making it much more dangerous; one sign, hoisted by a demonstrator in a black ski mask and pale pink sunglasses read, “FOSTA has a bodycount.”

The New York protest began with a march from Stonewall and ended with a raucous rally in Washington Square Park, one of the largest sex workers’ rights demonstrations ever held in the United States. Many of the speakers acknowledged those they already lost—long before SESTA/FOSTA—to violence. “I was crying back here because I have buried so many children. I’ve seen so many girls get murdered,” said Ceyenne Doroshow, the founder and director of GLITS, a New York City-based organization led by and supporting transgender sex workers. Earlier this year, Doroshow defended herself from a man she said attacked her, and then she had to fight criminal charges brought against her by the Queens district attorney as a result of the incident. Even after her attorney presented detailed accounts of abuse, as The Appeal reported, the DA refused to dismiss the case outright. To those gathered in Saturday’s searing heat to protest SESTA/FOSTA, Doroshow proclaimed, “Before I did this, I was a ho. I will always be a ho!” There were cheers and applause. “I’m gonna survive. You’re gonna survive.”

The protest was organized in part by sex workers’ rights activists campaigning as Survivors Against SESTA, formed this winter, who helped make the legislation a national issue. One Survivors Against SESTA activist, who did not use a name because she fears for her safety, addressed the rally, at that point around 400 strong. They repeated her words, loudly and in unison, to better amplify them across the protest. “I stand in awe of our resilience,” she said. “Last week, my friend was assaulted by a new client she was unable to screen, after FOSTA. … Legislators know they are killing us. In private conversations they say, we understand. But when it’s time to vote, they conveniently forget.”

Protestors at International Whores Day march from Stonewall to Washington Square Park, International Whores Day, New York
Photo by the author

To directly assist those who are struggling with a loss of income in the wake of SESTA/FOSTA, sex workers have raised funds for and from each other. Dominique, who helps run the sex worker mutual care fund Lysistrata, explained that the funds empower sex workers to refuse risky work. “It is downright nauseating,” said Dominique, “to see our mutual care fund strained and our members facing ever-magnifying physical and financial stress after the passage of SESTA/FOSTA while millions pour into the coffers of anti-prostitution organizations…. Let me make this abundantly clear, sex work is work!… It is an industry not of victims, and not even an industry of necessarily happy hookers—and that is okay.”

One of SESTA/FOSTA’s most vocal supporters in Congress, Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York, now faces a Democratic primary challenge from Suraj Patel, who attended the protest and urges the repeal of SESTA/FOSTA. “I implore our representatives, current and new—potentially,” said Dominique, “to cast off your old tired ethics!” (This was a reference to one of the first U.S. sex workers’ rights organizations, COYOTE, formed in 1973, and whose name was an acronym for those same words.)

Campaigns like Survivors Against SESTA are new, but the demands they made are decades old. Survivors Against SESTA timed its actions with International Whores’ Day, a day of celebration and protest that honors the sex workers who occupied churches in five French cities, beginning with Lyon on June 2, 1975, to protest anti-prostitution policing. When police moved in to remove them, the interior minister—who was also the head of police—claimed their protests were a front for those who profit from the “white-slave trade.”

Such attempts to link sex work to sexual slavery live on: They were central to the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, which was described by supporters as a means to save women and girls from being sold for sex or from being trafficked by threatening legal action against the websites where ads for sex work appeared. Yet some anti-trafficking organizations, including the nation’s largest network of anti-trafficking service providers, joined sex workers in opposition to SESTA/FOSTA, on the grounds that it would increase danger in the sex trade while doing little to protect people from trafficking. One sign seen at Saturday’s protest reflected the unity between sex workers and trafficking survivors on SESTA/FOSTA: “We can all be safe. Let sex workers and sex trafficking survivors live.”

As the rally occupied the space surrounding Washington Square Park’s arch, protestors learned that across the river in Brooklyn, one New York woman working to change anti-sex work laws sat in jail. Tiffaney Grissom said that the previous night she was in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, and at about 4 a.m. she was arrested and charged with “loitering for the purposes of prostitution.” Grissom, who is Black and trans, is also a plaintiff on a class action suit challenging this law, charging it is unconstitutional and that the New York Police Department enforce it disproportionately against Black and Latinx women.

Sixteen hours later, Grissom was still waiting for her court appearance. When I met her in 2016, she told me she had engaged in sex work sometimes, but most of the time that she was charged with loitering she was just hanging out. “It’s a way to arrest a lot of people for nothing,” said Cynthia H. Conti-Cook, a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society, who is involved in bringing the class action suit against the loitering law and who Grissom called after her Saturday arrest.  “It seemed like an easy arrest,” Grissom told The Appeal just outside the Brooklyn court where she was released just before 9 p.m. on Saturday. “I don’t need to have to prove myself as to why I’m outside, or defend myself for being outside.”

Though SESTA/FOSTA is what drove hundreds of sex workers and supporters to Washington Square Park on Saturday, it is just one of many U.S. laws criminalizing sex workers not only for their work, or the right to be in public, but for their survival. Near the rally’s close, the words of Alisha Walker, an incarcerated sex worker, were heard. In 2016, Walker, a Black woman in her 20s, was convicted in Cook County, Illinois, of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison for defending herself against a client who demanded unprotected sex and then attacked her and a co-worker. One of the Survivors Against SESTA organizers, Red, is part of the Justice for Alisha Walker defense campaign, and shared Alisha’s statement for International Whores’ Day at the rally. Red asked the crowd again to repeat Alisha’s words so that even those crowding the edges of the rally could make them out.  “Why is everyone scared of whores?” asked Alisha, through Red. “Well, shit. Maybe they should be.” The crowd roared, then repeated along: “Whores. Will. Rise.”

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Is The Yolo County District Attorney Betraying CA Voters?

By charging shoplifters with felonies, Jeff Reisig is circumventing Prop 47, intended to reduce CA prison populations.

Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig
Office of the Yolo County District Attorney

Is The Yolo County District Attorney Betraying CA Voters?

By charging shoplifters with felonies, Jeff Reisig is circumventing Prop 47, intended to reduce CA prison populations.

On March 8, 2018, brothers Oleg and Sergey Galushkin drove to a Nugget Market in Yolo County, California, where, police said, they shoplifted bottles of vodka, lighters, butane and lighter fuel, a total value of under $200. The two then went to a Safeway and took six bottles of vodka and some frozen meat.

Someone called the police, and the men were arrested and charged with the felony of “conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor,” which made them eligible for time in state prison, even though, under California law, thefts under $950 are all considered misdemeanors, which carry a sentence of less than 12 months. (They ultimately pleaded to misdemeanors.)

In another area case, Karina Chavarria shoplifted about $600 worth of merchandise from a Walmart, including bedding, lamps, laundry detergent, and soap. The store recovered all of the items, but Chavarria was charged with a felony, like the Galushkin brothers. (She ultimately pleaded to a misdemeanor.  Jonathan Raven, the chief deputy district attorney in Yolo County, said his office tried to get her into treatment.) And, in Davis, California, Alec Morgan was charged with a felony conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor when he and two friends stole two bicycles, both worth under $200, from an apartment complex.

In a county of a little over 200,000 people, the elected Yolo County district attorney, Jeff Reisig, has been using his prosecutorial discretion to circumvent Proposition 47 and Proposition 57, two measures that passed in 2014 and 2016 intended to reduce state prison populations. Prop 47 makes certain low-level crimes misdemeanors. But by using a felony charge known as “conspiracy to commit misdemeanor”—the charge makes any theft conducted by more than one person a felony regardless of the amount—Reisig is threatening to send people to prison for minor acts of theft.

Reisig–like other nominally progressive district attorneys in California–opposed Prop 47 and Prop 57 when they were on the ballot. He argued that Prop 47 was a “revolving door” on crime. In 2003 and 2010, his office had the highest rate of children charged as adults under California’s direct file law. He has a history of overcharging, including, for example, Vincent Ruiz, a man who was playing outside with a laser pointer and was charged with the felony of “discharge of a laser at an occupied aircraft.” But it’s clear that residents of Yolo County want the new reforms enforced. Both Prop 47 and 57 passed with a majority of votes in the county. According to the ACLU Foundations of California, 61 percent of county residents voted in favor of Prop 47; 68 percent for Prop 57.

In the lead-up to his primary election on June 5, Reisig has promoted his creation of a neighborhood court and other diversion courts, but he has remained a steadfast opponent of criminal justice reforms favored by many California voters. He is one of the many prosecutors in California who have decried Prop 47 as a “public safety disaster.”

DAs and other officials who oppose criminal justice reforms have persistently presented a message that Prop 47 has resulted in shoplifting with impunity because would-be thieves know that they will not go to state prison if their theft is less than $950. Some local California police have argued that they can’t even arrest people for shoplifting because the law doesn’t allow them to be charged with a felony. As a result, they claim, arrestees are released into the community quickly and do not face state prison time.

In reality, there is ample evidence to show that crime in California has continued to decline. Even the California Retailers Association, a trade group that advocates for store owners, says that it’s too early to tell if Prop 47 has caused any change in shoplifting patterns.

Michael Romano, an attorney with Stanford’s Three Strikes Project, pointed out in a phone interview with The Appeal that shoplifting is still against the law, despite changes to sentencing or charging decisions. And, there’s actually nothing in Prop 47 forbidding local police departments from holding accused shoplifters in jail on bail. What Prop 47 did do was force county jails to decide which people would get probation rather than jail time, and most departments have opted to save their limited jail space for violent crimes.

But, those against reform have argued that shoplifting is increasing and Prop 47 should be changed. There are two proposals to roll back Prop 47. One is comprehensive and backed by groups who strenuously argue against the criminal justice reforms that California residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of. The other focuses purely on the shoplifting issue and enjoys broad support from liberal DAs. Both rely on statistics that suggest shoplifting is rising nationally, but not that California is experiencing an increase.

One major driver of the campaign to roll back Prop 47 is the California Retailers Association. Using anecdotal evidence, the association has helped spread anxiety that shoplifters have formed “retail theft rings,” the equivalent of a shoplifting criminal enterprise. While some thefts are most likely part of a group effort—people may be stealing some products to resell—there’s no official definition of “organized retail theft” beyond the one that the trade association has created. Retail associations and law enforcement have long claimed that shoplifting is a major source of income loss, but the data comes from the National Retail Federation itself, and it’s not clear whether this is the result of outside shoplifters or employee theft. And while the National Retail Federation did a 2017 survey that found 95 percent of store owners said organized theft was a problem, they did not do any California-specific research. Bill Dombrowski of the California Retailers Association confirmed in a phone interview that while “we all know” shoplifting has increased, there was no state data.

More comprehensive rollback efforts are being spearheaded by California Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a Democrat whose district includes Sacramento, and the Republican district attorney in Sacramento, Anne Marie Schubert. Their backers include the Klass family, prominent proponents of the Three Strikes Law, under the banner of the California Public Safety Partnership. Cooper has cast the shoplifting problem as one that impacts small businesses, not big-box stores. In a statement released by the California Police Chiefs Association, Cooper said, “Emboldened thieves will continue to extort the law with no consequences, resulting in increased costs for day-to-day essentials for working-class families.” The partnership includes trade groups like the California Grocers Association, whose policy director said: “Since 2014, we’ve seen a significant increase in both incidents and in the value of cases as it became known that no matter how many times you’re caught—so long as you stay under $950—you’ll just get a citation to show up in court.” (Assemblyman Cooper was the grocers association’s “Legislator of the Year.”)

The second proposal, in contrast to Cooper’s, is sponsored by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer from Los Angeles and backed by the California Retail Association as well as half a dozen DA offices, including San Francisco’s DA office. (Governor Jerry Brown also participated in the drafting, according to Jones-Sawyer.) Promoted as a compromise bill, the proposal would make organized retail theft a “wobbler” – something that can be charged either as a misdemeanor or a felony. Jones-Sawyer described this as “right down the middle.” Dombrowski of the California Retailers Association said Prop 47 has “contributed” to shoplifting, but added, “I’m not willing to say it’s the source of all problems.” He said the association supported  Jones-Sawyer’s bill because “our industry didn’t have any interest in getting involved in that fight [over general criminal justice reform].”

Raven, the Yolo County chief deputy DA, explained to The Appeal that the data did not show a significant increase in the number of “conspiracy to commit misdemeanor” charges. The number of cases charged as “conspiracy to commit misdemeanor” more than doubled between 2014—the year that Prop 47 passed—     and 2015, from nine to 21. But at least half of those cases include other felony charges, which Raven argues shows no intent to inflate charges. Instead, he cast the use of a conspiracy charge as prosecutorial discretion that “is a valuable tool in the right cases.” He also pointed out that the number of misdemeanor conspiracy cases was only a small portion of the nearly 4,000 misdemeanors filed in Yolo County every year. (Raven also discussed the specific cases at issue and pointed out factors that he thought would justify a conspiracy charge.)

Reisig’s decision to charge people with felonies for stealing even a few hundred dollars’ worth of merchandise has become an acceptable move for prosecutors even when the electorate has specifically decided that such thefts should not be punishable by state prison time. Tracie Olsen, the public defender of Yolo County, said in an email statement: “Jails and prisons should be reserved for those that are truly a present danger to public safety. It’s really all about differentiating between those that we are afraid of and those we are simply mad at.”

Reisig now faces opposition for district attorney from Dean Johansson, a public defender who has argued against this sort of overcharging. It remains to be seen how much a factor the issue will be in tomorrow’s June 5 primary, which may come down to a partial referendum on the future of criminal justice reform in the state. Jonathan Simon, a law professor at University of California, Berkeley, who has studied trends in California incarceration, said: “It is important not to underestimate how seriously both prosecutors and police organizations take the very recent and still emerging popular turn against the politics of ‘fear of crime’ that had dominated American politics from LBJ to Obama. …Without the extraordinary valorization of law enforcement freedom of action in the era of fear of crime, the extraordinary expansion of law enforcement power would strike many as intolerable and unconstitutional.”

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