Broad Coalition Launches Petition and Calls on Congress and the Pennsylvania Legislature to Pass Critical Reform Bills; Group Aims to Protect Students from Educator Sexual Misconduct through National and State Legislation

Pennsylvania at the epicenter of the fight against student sexual abuse

PHILADELPHIA, April 13, 2012 – State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams and U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA) will join parents, advocates and community leaders from across the state at the Philadelphia Federal Courthouse on Monday to launch a formal campaign to protect students by ending the practice known as “Passing the Trash.”

“Passing the Trash” is the disturbing reality that educators who engage in sexual abuse often are allowed to escape prosecution and relocate to another school district.

A coalition, led by teacher abuse prevention group S.E.S.A.M.E. (“Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation”) and including some of the state’s leading victims’ advocacy groups, will push for the passage of state and national legislation that would tighten abuse reporting laws and require background checks for all school employees.

“In many cases of educator sexual misconduct, predators not only evade prosecution, they are quietly shuffled to another school where they abuse countless other students,” said Terri Miller, president of S.E.S.A.M.E. “The conspiracy of silence has to change – we can’t allow schools to place the protection of the abuser over the safety of children.”

Pennsylvania is at the epicenter of the fight against student sexual abuse, with lawmakers sponsoring both state and national legislation. Williams is author of Senate Bill 1381, the S.E.S.A.M.E Act, which would require schools to obtain all prospective employees’ work records. The measure would also prohibit confidentiality agreements between the school and an alleged abuser and stop educators from forfeiting their teaching certification in lieu of discipline.

“The current system fails hundreds of kids every year – we must close the loopholes that allow predators to beat the rap and continue teaching,” Williams said. “Abusers should not be able to hide from their past by simply moving to another district or state. We need to ensure every school knows exactly who they’re hiring before it’s too late.”

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and Williams is among those pushing for greater recognition of the issue and workable solutions. Teacher sexual misconduct has reached epidemic proportions in America’s schools. It is estimated that nearly 1 in 10 kids – or nearly 4.5 million current K-12 students – will be a victim of abuse before the end of his or her school career, according to published reports. At least a quarter of all U.S. school districts have dealt with a case of sexual abuse over the last decade.

In December, Fitzpatrick reintroduced the Jeremy Bell Act, which would penalize school employers who make interstate transfers of employees who are sex offenders. The bill also addresses sexual conduct reporting standards and would require all school employees to pass a fingerprint background check.

The bill is named after Jeremy Bell, a student who was murdered in West Virginia in 1997 by his school’s principal, who came to his school after resigning amid sexual abuse allegations at a Pennsylvania school. The investigation into Jeremy Bell’s death revealed that his killer had worked in at least six different school settings with access to thousands of children.

One of those schools was Prospect Park Elementary, in the 8th District.

“Had this teacher not been allowed to resign and resurface in another school, Jeremy might be alive today,” Fitzpatrick said. “The Jeremy Bell Act will unify reporting laws, criminalize the interstate transfer of predators and literally save lives.”

Monday’s press conference will kick off a statewide effort to secure the passage of both bills, organized by a coalition that includes national advocacy groups S.E.S.A.M.E. and the Kids Safe Foundation. In the coming weeks, the coalition will host rallies, organize petitions and encourage all Pennsylvanians to contact their lawmakers, urging the passage of these bills.

“Now is the time we must act,” Williams said. “Our children cannot afford for us to wait.”