HARRISBURG, April 30, 2013 – The stories are harrowing.
There was Betty Ferguson, of Erie, retelling how her daughter, Debbie, was raped, sodomized, strangled and then murdered by her teacher.
Then there was Roy E. Bell, of West Virginia, recounting how his 12-year-old son, Jeremy, was drugged, sexually assaulted and killed by his principal, Edgar Friedrichs. Friedrichs admitted sexual misconduct and was allowed to resign from a Pennsylvania school district then resumed teaching in West Virginia where he ultimately became the Principal at Jeremy's elementary school.
Their accounts, and too many news headlines detailing cases of children falling victim to coaches, teachers, principals, custodians and other school staff, is why Pennsylvania State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams introduced Senate Bill 46. And it's why S.E.S.A.M.E., Inc. stood with him at a press conference to promote its enactment.
"Sexual abuse by deviant educators – the very people who are supposed to educate our children for a successful adulthood – is a widespread problem in America's schools," said Terri L. Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, Inc.
The national grassroots campaign is seeking to curb the practice known as "passing the trash" – when a school employee suspected of abuse simply goes to another district, oftentimes without that history being shared with the new district. The bill Williams authored in Pennsylvania would end the practice there.
"Senate Bill 46 is designed to be proactive, as opposed to reading these stories and hoping that the judicial process will mete out justice and, certainly, that the child will recover from all scars," Williams said. "There's a perfect storm to protect pedophiles operating in the context of educational situations and being ... allowed to continue their behavior."
The bill would close a glaring loophole that at times allowed the hiring of school employees that have a history of investigations and even dismissals for abuse or sexual misconduct. While "passing the trash" affects a minority of school employees, the impact such predators can have can reach for generations.
"It's our obligation, our duty to step up for our children and make sure that [this bill] reaches the governor's desk," said David J. Arnold Jr., district attorney for Lebanon County. "So we can get rid of this resign-and-hide atmosphere that perpetuates itself throughout the commonwealth."
Chester Kent, a former superintendent in Western Pennsylvania, also is supportive of the measure.
"This bill provides the supports; the tools that school systems absolutely need to address sexual misconduct and sexual abuse," Kent said. "The S.E.S.A.M.E. bill will be a significant, critical addition to the background checking system that will prevent the hiring, and end the passing of trash."
According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 1 in 10 K-12 students is the target of educator sexual misconduct sometime during his or her academic career. And at least 1 in 4 U.S. school districts have dealt with a case of sexual abuse by a staff member in the past decade, while more than 3 million current K-12 students have endured sexual touching or assault, according to a report from the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.
Williams introduced this measure previously, but legislators failed to take up the bill before the truncated legislative session ended. He re-introduced it this year, with the knowledge gained from previous hearings and ongoing news reports on the issue. With S.E.S.A.M.E., he is pushing for and gaining new legislative interest in the bill.
"This is a commonsense legislative prescription, about standing up for our students," said state Rep. Cherelle Parker, who chairs the Philadelphia delegation in the state House. "The current practice of 'passing the trash' protects the offender, not the student. We must confront this problem and hold perpetrators accountable for their actions to prevent more of our children from becoming victims of sexual misconduct."
Williams has worked with unions, prosecutors, child protection advocates and others in developing the bill. There are safeguards in place to protect not just the children, but also educational professionals, so that no reputations would be harmed "simply because a student doesn't particularly like the person who is the gym teacher, the janitor, or anyone else who is in the educational atmosphere," he said.
The bill sailed through the state Senate's education committee unanimously, earning support from Republicans and Democrats. It's won support from groups such as the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys' Association, among others.
But more must be done to see it enacted. More people like Betty and Roy must share their stories, write their representatives and demand action. S.E.S.A.M.E. is committed to helping them find proactive protection, so no more Bettys or Roys have to suffer.
"Passing the S.E.S.A.M.E. Act to prohibit passing the trash," Miller said, "is simply the right thing to do."