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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.

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.