Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

We were initially leery about the prospect of having eighth-graders, many of whom are 13 years old, attending Baker High School with students as much as six years older.

But after looking over the details of a proposal by the Baker School District, we believe the benefits of allowing a relatively small number of eighth-graders take some, but not all, of their classes at BHS are worth pursuing, as long as the parents and administrators work to minimize the risks.

Our conclusion is based largely on the limited nature of the proposal, which the Baker School Board continues to study.

The district won't be turning BHS into a five-year school. Eighth-graders won't have lockers just down the hall from seniors. Middle schoolers won't be riding with 18-year-olds to McDonald's for lunch.

Superintendent Walt Wegener said the district would achieve one of its goals - creating classroom space at Baker Middle School - if as few as 30 eighth-graders, with their parents' permission, traveled to BHS for a few classes each day.

This would not be an entirely new program, by the way.

A handful of eighth-graders are taking either math or language arts classes at BHS this year.

The advantages are significant - eighth-graders can get an early start on their high school requirements, allowing them to begin accumulating college credits, or even to obtain an associate's degree, before graduating from BHS.

The savings can be considerable not only in time but in money - Wegener estimates students could pare as much as $50,000 from their college expenses by earning an associate's degree while in high school.

All well and good.

But what about the concerns expressed by Baker County District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff, Circuit Court Judge Greg Baxter, and local attorney Robert Moon in a recent letter to the editor?

They fear that allowing eighth-graders to share classrooms and hallways with older students would increase the risk of sexual relationships development.

And these legal experts point out that a student from the ages of 16 to 19 who has a sex with a 13-year-old could be convicted of a crime that, under Oregon law, requires a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 75 months.

This is a valid concern.

But of course it's valid regardless of how the 13-year-old and the, say, 18-year-old become acquainted.

Teenagers, after all, don't restrict their socializing to when they're at school.

There's no evidence that the current situation, with five eighth-graders taking a class or two at the high school, has resulted in inappropriate, and felonious, relationships between students.

And we don't believe that adding a couple dozen more eighth-graders to that roster would result in an appreciable increase in the risk.

To be clear, we don't intend to diminish the concerns that Shirtcliff, Baxter and Moon expressed in their letter.

We applaud them, in fact, for raising awareness about an important topic.

We encourage students and their parents to heed the warnings and to recognize that the ramifications of inappropriate sexual relationships can be legal as well as emotional and physical - whether those relationships occur inside a school or elsewhere.