A former high school teacher in Pickens County, South Carolina entered an Alford plea this week on one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor after she was caught engaging in a sexual relationship with a student.
Katherine Folger Pelfrey, 35, formerly of Clemson, S.C., entered her plea this week after a Pickens County grand jury indicted her back in January on that charge – and on a separate charge of sexual battery of a student aged sixteen or seventeen.
An Alford plea means a defendant is maintaining their innocence – but acknowledging sufficient evidence exists to convict them of the crime of which they stand accused.
Prosecutors in the office of S.C. thirteenth circuit solicitor Walt Wilkins dropped the sexual battery charge as part of their plea agreement with Pelfrey, which resulted in her being placed on probation.
Pelfrey’s charges stemmed from a sexual encounter with a student that occurred at her home on December 29, 2021. Investigators and school district officials received notification of the alleged encounter two days later – on New Year’s Eve – at which point Pelfrey confessed to the indiscretion and was promptly terminated from her position.
She was arrested by Pickens County sheriff’s deputies on January 3, 2022 on the aforementioned charges.
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Pelfrey had been with the Pickens County school district since 2017. Prior to her arrest on these charges, she had never been in trouble with the law.
Pelfrey’s “situation” falls squarely within a grey area in South Carolina criminal statutes – one I have addressed on several occasions in the past (controversially, I might add).
To recap: The age of consent in South Carolina for sexual activity is sixteen. While I believe it should be (at least a year) higher, according to S.C. Code § 16-15-342 (B) it is sixteen.
Since that is the law … how does the state explain criminalizing sexual activity between consenting “adults” in one instance but not in others?
I am not condoning adult teachers or administrators engaging in sexual intercourse (or other sex acts) with students – including those who have attained the age of consent. Those who participate in such activity deserve to be fired. And if it happens more than once, I believe they should be permanently banned from ever serving in a government-run school again.
My point is simply this: Should there not be a distinction between an unethical act requiring civil consequences and an illegal act that spurs criminal charges?
I believe the intent of South Carolina’s teacher-student sex law is noble. It strives to keep adults in positions of authority from abusing their power in pursuit of personal sexual gratification. But as I have often noted, the law does not contain a “coercion” or “force” requirement for prosecution. All that is required is evidence that a sex act took place – or evidence of inappropriate contact/ communication between the student and teacher.
Which brings me back to the original question: Should one form of consensual sex between “adults” be criminalized while another is not?
Clearly, a teacher or administrator who engages in a sexual relationship (or behaves in a sexually indecent manner) with a student who has not attained the age of consent should absolutely face criminal charges. Meanwhile, if there is any evidence of pressure applied on the student by the teacher or administrator – irrespective of their age – that represents the definition of coercion and would be a textbook example of misconduct in office.
But as I mentioned a moment ago, Pelfrey’s case does not appear to fall into either of those categories.
Every case we cover is different. Every case involves aggravating and mitigating factors. And there is a case to be made that teachers like Pelfrey are engaging in de facto coercion given that sixteen-year-old and seventeen-year-old students are far less likely to pick up on manipulative behavior.
But again … doesn’t that go to the need to raise the age of consent?
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Teachers who engage in sexual/ inappropriate relationships with students over sixteen (the age of consent in South Carolina) should ...
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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