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A former LaRue County High School teacher accused of having a sexual relationship with a student won’t be spending time in jail after pleading guilty to a lesser charge Friday in Hardin Circuit Court.
Natalie Gentry, originally charged with one count of sexual abuse after she was accused of having intercourse with a 17-year-old student at her home in June 2011, pleaded guilty to an amended charge of sexual misconduct, a misdemeanor punishable up to 12 months in jail.
Hardin Circuit Judge Kelly Mark Easton sentenced Gentry to 12 months, but she was conditionally discharged from serving. To refrain from serving the sentence, Gentry must not have any other violations and she is banned from teaching in Kentucky. Her record will not be expunged.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Shane Young discussed the plea deal with the student and his parents as well as defense attorneys. Young said the law regarding sexual abuse is worded in a way that could have made mounting a case against Gentry difficult if it had gone to trial.
The law states it is illegal for a person in authority to “subject” a person younger than 18 to a sexual encounter, and Young said the word “subject” implies that the victim needs to be compelled by some sort of forceful act to engage in the encounter. He believes the law was intended to cover any sexual relationship between a teacher and a student, including one with consent from both parties, but the wording is murky.
Easton addressed the issues with the wording of the law Friday in court.
“Whether the teacher is male or female, it is simply wrong for any high school teacher to have sex with his or her teenage students,” Easton said, “and I believe it was the intention of our General Assembly for that act to be a felony crime, even though the teenager has reached the age of consent, which is 16 years old.”
But the wording of the law, KRS 510.110(1)(d), “creates doubt as to whether the consent of the teenager is a defense.”
House Bill 196, currently in the Kentucky House of Representatives, would replace the word “subjects” with the phrase “engages in sexual contact with” to make the meaning of the law clearer, Easton said. He urged area residents to contact their legislators to act on the bill if they feel sexual relationships between teachers and students should be a felony.
The same issue arose in a previous case. Stephen Gray, a former teacher at Central Hardin High School, was charged with two counts of sexual abuse in December 2010 stemming from allegations of sexual contact with two students.
A mistrial was declared in the case after a jury couldn’t come to an agreement on a verdict, and the charges against Gray were dropped in February 2012. During deliberation, the jury asked for a definition of the word “subjects.”
Young, who wasn’t serving as Commonwealth’s attorney at the time of the Gray case, said he believed the wording of the law was an issue then, too.
“I think it’s something the jury got hung up on,” he said.
Because of new changes to Kentucky’s rape laws, Young said he thinks he has another avenue to pursue for any future cases involving teachers and students. The new laws make sexual contact between a person of authority and those younger than 18 illegal, where previously the age of consent was 16. Young plans to pursue a third-degree rape charge for similar cases in the future.
Gentry was arrested in January 2012 and at the time was charged with a count of first-degree sexual abuse and two counts of official misconduct. One of those counts of misconduct related to allegations of sexual encounters with an 18-year-old student. She was not indicted on either of the misconduct charges.
She was fired from LaRue County High in October 2011.
Kelly Cantrall can be reached at (270) 505-1747 or email@example.com.