Bill to curb educator sexual misconduct with students advances in Pa. House
Originally Published on PennLive.com, 10/22/13 By Jan Murphy. Read the original posting here.
Legislation aimed at keeping schools from unknowingly hiring individuals who have been investigated for sexual misconduct for positions that bring them in contact with children won state House Education Committee approval on Tuesday.
The committee's bi-partisan passage of the Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation bill, sponsored by Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, brings it as close as the proposal has gotten to becoming law since it was first introduced in 2011. It passed the Senate on June 3 by a 50-0 vote.
The bill enhances the reporting requirement for job applicants, requiring them to disclose if they have been the subject of a sexual misconduct investigation or if they were ever disciplined or discharged while being investigated for this type of activity.
It also requires schools or their independent contractors to contact past employers to inquire about any history of allegations or of abuse or sexual misconduct. And among other things, it would bar schools from "passing the trash" by entering into severance agreements or any other contract that suppresses information about an employee's sexual misconduct allegations.
In a statement, Williams said, "I simply couldn't be more pleased that Senate Bill 46 passed unanimously through the state House Education Committee. Today's action shows the collective resolve to ensure the greatest protections we can offer our children and families from school-based predators, as well as hard-working educators and support staff whose reputations also often are tainted when a colleague's actions turn hideously criminal."
The need for getting this law on the books lies in the statistics that show one in 10 Pennsylvania middle/high school students are molested or attempted to be molested during their school career, said Chester Kent, a former superintendent and educational consultant in over 120 court cases in federal and state court involving teacher sexual abuse/harassment.
Kent told the committee just in the past two and a half years, 33 incidents of employees involved in sexual misconduct with students occurred in Western Pennsylvania.
But midstaters know of incidents that have occurred even closer to home, including one as recently as September involving Susquehanna Township High School assistant principal Shawn Sharkey, who is facing charges that he allegedly carried on a sexual relationship with a student, according to court documents.
Kent said the problem is far more extensive than most believe, which is why this legislation needs to pass soon.
"The current laws in our books basically go after the horse after it's left the barn," he said. "They are not as preventative as we would like them to be. We believe this bill has a very good chance of being highly preventative in schools districts in the initial employment, during employment and even post-employment to curb significantly the problem."
The bill has the support of most of the education groups as well as the attorney general's office, Kent said.
That includes the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, where its executive director Jim Buckheit said in an emailed statement that superintendents agree "that verification of employment, education and certification must be a prerequisite when any school or school contractor considers hiring any individual who will have direct contact with children. It is not only an imperative to protect children, but is also a sound hiring and personnel practice."
This employee background checks proposal also was discussed in the recommendations of the Child Protection Task Force that was formed in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal to strengthen the state's laws to protect children's welfare.
For Williams, the timing of the House Education Committee vote comes just three days after the death of one of its biggest champions, Roy Edward Bell, whose son Jeremy was groomed, abused and murdered by a school-based predator.
"Roy spent his remaining days seeking justice; not just for his son, but for all children and families so brutalized and victimized," Williams said in a statement issued on Monday. Bell "even drove from his home in West Virginia to stand by my side to express what a bill like this could have meant for him and his family had it been law in 1997."
*This post was updated to include the Pennsylvania School Administrators' Association's reaction.