ST. ANSGAR | The Iowa Senate passed a bill inspired by the story of a young woman from St. Ansgar that would make it a crime for community college employees to sexually exploit students with disabilities.
But the bill, which passed unanimously in the Senate on April 1, didn't make it out of a subcommittee in the House before the April 5 funnel deadline. This means it will not be considered again until the 2020 session.
"I'm so disappointed," said Brenda Esdohr, St. Ansgar, stepmother of Elizabeth Esdohr, who was allegedly being groomed for a sexual relationship by a tutor in a program at Iowa Lakes Community College for special education students in the fall of 2017.
Elizabeth was 20 at the time, but she was functioning at the level of a 13-year-old because of her developmental delay, Brenda said.
Even if "Elizabeth's Law" is passed next year, that leaves a population of Iowans who are already vulnerable with no recourse under criminal law unprotected in the meantime, she said.
The Globe Gazette does not identify victims of sexual abuse or exploitation unless they give permission.
With consent from Brenda and her husband, Michael Esdohr, Elizabeth's father and legal guardian, the Globe spoke to Elizabeth and received her permission to use her full name and photo.
Brenda said the family is being open about their identity because they want the public to see there's a face behind the story.
"This is the girl next door, or the boy," she said.
Brenda said she contacted lawmakers after she learned there's a loophole in state law when it comes to sexual exploitation by school employees that leaves unprotected students age 18-21 who are still enrolled in a high school special education program but receive services from community colleges.
The current definition of "school employee" under the section of Iowa Code prohibiting sexual exploitation of students -- defined as engaging in a pattern, practice or scheme of sexual conduct -- only includes those working for a secondary school or Area Education Agency.
It doesn't include community college employees who work with students with special needs like Elizabeth, "which infuriated me," Brenda said. "That's just not acceptable."
As part of her education for the 2017-18 school year, Elizabeth attended the SAVE program at Iowa Lakes through her individualized education plan with the St. Ansgar School District.
SAVE, like similar programs at other community colleges, is meant to fill gaps in instruction for special education students ages 18-21.
Elizabeth lived on the Iowa Lakes campus in Emmetsburg, attended classes and received tutoring.
Through monitoring of Elizabeth's electronic devices, the Esdohrs found texts she and her tutor, John Calby, 56, Lone Rock, exchanged during late October and early November 2017.
They also read and took screenshots of conversations Elizabeth and Calby had in Google Hangout.
They gave these records to law enforcement, and recently shared them with the Globe.
In the texts and Hangout conversations, Calby repeatedly called Elizabeth "baby" or "baby girl," and told her she was sexy.
They referred to times when Calby rubbed her back and gave her hugs.
In one Hangout conversation, Elizabeth complained about being cold.
"I will keep you warm tomorrow," Calby replied.
The electronic communications also indicate Calby and Elizabeth were arranging to meet alone in her dorm room while her roommates were out.
Brenda said she and Michael discovered what was going on before that meeting could take place.
Brenda said the touching never escalated to sexual acts, but "I shudder to think about what the outcome would have been if I had not found out when I did."
A judge granted the Esdohrs' request for a temporary sexual abuse protection order against Calby on Elizabeth's behalf on Nov. 6, 2017, two days after they discovered the texts and chats.
The judge issued a one-year protective order following a hearing a few weeks later.
According to the transcript of the hearing, Calby testified he didn't have any sexual intent when texting Elizabeth.
He said he gave her a back rubs to calm her down because she was stressed out.
Calby said he told Elizabeth she was beautiful and sexy to build up her self-esteem.
Michael Esdohr filed a civil suit against Calby and Iowa Lakes in December 2017 on Elizabeth's behalf. A trial date hasn't been set.
Calby has resigned from his job at Iowa Lakes, attorneys for the college stated in court documents they filed in March 2018 in the civil case.
That same month, Palo Alto County Attorney Peter Hart filed a felony charge of sexual exploitation by a school employee against Calby.
Calby pleaded not guilty and a trial date was set for Feb. 12 of this year.
However, five days before the trial, Hart filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted by a judge.
When contacted by the Globe, Hart declined to explain why he dropped the charge.
He did say, "I am pleased that Mr. and Mrs. Esdohr were able to communicate with their legislators."
Brenda said she isn't upset with Hart, who she said "worked hard to get justice for Elizabeth."
Brenda credits State Sen. Waylon Brown, R-St. Ansgar, with "getting the ball rolling" on legislation to protect young adults with special needs like her stepdaughter.
Brown said Brenda first told him Elizabeth's story in February 2018.
He introduced a bill in the Senate during last year's legislative session that would make it illegal for college employees to sexually exploit students with developmental disabilities.
The bill was assigned to a judiciary subcommittee, but did not advance further.
Brown said the subcommittee determined although the intent behind it was good, the bill had flaws and wasn't enforceable as written.
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee started over with a new version of the bill this session.
"I told them the story and what they needed to address, and they took it from there," Brown said.
However, the House didn't get the bill until just before the funnel deadline, and the members of that chamber's judiciary committee who are also attorneys said the language in the bill was too broad, according to Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison.
Holt, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said sexual exploitation of those with special needs is "horrendous," but "you have to be very careful when it comes to legal language."
In an official statement released Monday morning, the Esdohrs said, "While our family struggles with the House subcommittee’s decision, we continue to lend support to our law makers and their commitment to producing the best possible laws for protecting students across Iowa."