By PennLive Op-Ed
on May 24, 2012 at 5:00 AM, updated May 24, 2012 at 8:35 AM
By Terri Miller
Pennsylvania’s schools are facing a hidden epidemic: Countless students are quietly being preyed upon by the very educators charged with keeping them safe. And a loophole in state law is keeping these predators in the classroom.
We have a duty to fix the flawed system that places the protection of pedophiles over the safety of our children. We urge the state Legislature to take the first step toward that end by passing Senate Bill 1381, the S.E.S.A.M.E. Act. We must ensure this bill becomes law before another school year begins and another child is victimized.
In far too many cases of educator sexual misconduct, abusers not only evade prosecution, they are quietly shuffled to another unsuspecting school district where they are likely to abuse again — a practice known in education circles as “passing the trash.”
Often, these educators come with glowing recommendations from their former employers and the truth about their predatory past is only discovered after it’s too late and more children are cast into the chasm of victimization.
This is exactly what happened in the shocking and horrific case of Jeremy Bell, a 12-year-old West Virginia student who was sexually assaulted and murdered in 1997 by Principal Edgar Friedrichs Jr., a known sex offender who was passed through multiple Pennsylvania schools before surfacing in Jeremy’s school.
Friedrichs was accused of inappropriate or abusive behavior in at least six schools and, like so many pedophiles, each time he was allowed to leave quietly with his teaching credentials and a recommendation in hand. And so he went, slithering from classroom to classroom, accessing hundreds of new students and leaving countless victims in his wake.
In heinous cases such as these, there are always unwitting co-conspirators: other school staff who turn a blind eye to a colleague’s “creepy” behavior; school districts that would prefer to look the other way than face embarrassment and costly litigation; administrators who allow the alleged abuser to quietly walk away; teachers unions who defend and protect the guilty; and prospective employers who fail to conduct proper background checks.
But no matter who shoulders the blame, we must all work to end the conspiracy of silence and ensure this cannot continue. Everyone — from teachers and administrators to lawmakers and parents — must be vigilant about protecting kids from abuse.
State Sen. Anthony Williams’ proposed S.E.S.A.M.E. Act, which unanimously passed through the Senate Education Committee this month, would end the widespread culture of secrecy by requiring schools to obtain prospective employees’ work records.
The measure also would tighten abuse-reporting laws and background checking standards. These are common-sense changes that could save the lives of children in Pennsylvania and nationwide. The stakes could not be higher.
Across the U.S., an estimated 1 in 10 students will be the victim of educator sexual misconduct during their school career — that’s more than 4.5 million current K-12 students. At least a quarter of all U.S. school districts have reportedly dealt with a case of sexual abuse during the last decade.
By passing stricter laws, we will send a message to predators and, more importantly, to our children, that we will not tolerate educator sexual misconduct. By law, we must send our children to school. By law, we must demand our schools must keep them safe.
The eyes of the nation are on Pennsylvania. It’s time for us to stand up and do what’s right. The lives of our children depend on our action.