A bill that would make it a felony for schoolteachers and administrators to have sexual contact or relations with students regardless of age has been approved by the state Legislature’s law enforcement committee.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, would make it a crime for teachers or other employees of public or private primary, secondary and special education schools who have disciplinary, instructional or supervisory authority over students to have sexual contact with students, even those 18 years old or older. According to the bill, those breaking the law could be charged with a Class C felony.

The Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety unanimously voted the bill ought to pass. It was reported out of committee on Tuesday. The bill now heads to the Senate for a vote.

Cyrway on Wednesday said the committee’s support for the bill made it likely to pass in the Legislature.

“Everyone was on board with it,” he said.

“The basic thing is for the safety of the kids. That’s where our interest lies,” Cyrway added. “It will probably simplify things so everyone knows right where they stand,” he said.

The bill was proposed last year after former Waterville High School Principal Don Reiter was accused of asking an 18-year-old female student for sex at the beginning of the school year, then threatening to withhold her diploma if she told anyone what he said.

Under current Maine law, it is a crime for someone with disciplinary authority to have a sexual relationship with a student 17 or younger, but the law doesn’t apply if the student is 18 or older. Cyrway’s proposal eliminates that age cutoff.

Although Reiter’s case was highly publicized, Cyrway said he knows of other examples of school employees having had relationships with 18-year-old students, and the issue was swept under the rug.

“In my experience from talking to other schools, there have been situations where these types of things have happened and people have resigned and nothing was done,” Cyrway said.

“This would set a little higher expectation,” he added. “It’s the same playing field for everyone.”

In testimony at a public hearing on the bill this month, groups including the Maine Education Association, the Maine School Management Association and the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Violence offered support for the law change.

Elizabeth Ward Saxl, the coalition’s executive director, said Wednesday the law change will recognize that the authority a school official holds over a student makes any sexual relationship between them nonconsensual, regardless of the student’s age.

“I think what we’ve increasingly realized is the power differential between a school official who has authority over that kid is no different between a student who is 17½ and 18,” Ward Saxl said.

Older students actually might be more vulnerable to sexual abuse from school officials because they might have been held back in school because of poor support at home, a low IQ or trauma relating to a history of abuse, Ward Saxl said.

The coalition’s partner organizations have reported instances of sexual relationships between school officials and 18-year-old students before, and the coalition has discussed proposing legislation of its own.

When it supported the bill, the coalition wanted to make sure that it spelled out explicitly that the criminal charge would apply only to school employees who were in a position of authority over a student they were accused of having a relationship with, she added.

“We don’t take lightly the issue of taking away the rights of adults to have consensual relationships,” Ward Saxl said.

The Waterville School Board voted to dismiss Reiter in November after a monthslong investigation by the school administration and a public dismissal hearing in November that lasted several days.

Following his dismissal, Reiter was charged by Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney with official oppression, a Class E misdemeanor typically applied in cases of alleged corruption by public officials.

When she announced the charge in November, Maloney said her office would have charged Reiter with attempted sexual assault but could not because the student was 18 years old. Maloney said at the time she didn’t know why state law included the age cutoff.

On Wednesday, Maloney said the unanimous ought-to-pass vote was “extremely encouraging.”

“It’s a big change,” Maloney said.

“This bill makes it illegal regardless of age,” she added. “That provides a safer environment for students in secondary school.”