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
PHILADELPHIA, April 16, 2012 – State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams testified at a hearing held by U.S. Reps. Mike Fitzpatrick and Patrick Meehan (R-PA) today to spotlight the practice known as “Passing the Trash,” and focus attention on ending it by state and federal means.
“Passing the Trash” is a disturbing reality, whereby educators who engage in sexual abuse or misconduct are allowed to escape prosecution with light, if any penalties, and even relocate to another school district.
The hearing at the Philadelphia Federal Courthouse also helped launch a formal advocacy campaign for passage of two bills. In Harrisburg, Williams is pushing to enact Senate Bill 1381. On the federal side, Fitzpatrick and Meehan are pressing to enact the Jeremy Bell Act. Both bills would tighten abuse reporting laws and require background checks for all school employees.
“We know there’s no pretty way to talk about sexual misconduct in schools, and in many ways that has given predators room to roam,” Williams told the congressional subcommittee, along with leading victims’ advocacy groups and parents. “It’s unconscionable that we’ve taken this long to react. This is not a piece of legislation for me. It’s a cause to right the ship.”
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.
Pennsylvania sits at the epicenter of the fight against student sexual abuse, with lawmakers sponsoring both state and national legislation. Williams’ bill, also known as the S.E.S.A.M.E Act, 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 bill is named after the national advocacy group, S.E.S.A.M.E. Inc. (“Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation”). Its president, Terri Miller, came to Philadelphia from Las Vegas to also testify, as did area parents and educators.
“The problem is we’re dealing with a system designed to protect pedophiles, not school children,” Miller said.
By her anecdotal research, many of the children who suffered from sexual misconduct by a school employee later attempted suicide, and some of them succeed.
“Passing the trash is a pervasive, institutional practice . . . and it completely discounts the safety of our children,” Miller added.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, 50 out of 100 notifications across the state regarding educator disciplinary actions were related to sexual misconduct in the past year. Just 10 of the actions resulted in suspensions, while 16 individuals had their certification revoked, and 24 individuals were given the option to surrender their certificate in lieu of facing discipline.
Those figures stunned Meehan, sending him to thank Williams for “leadership in this, and for looking at this matter in collaboration with us.”
In December, Fitzpatrick reintroduced the Jeremy Bell Act, which would penalize school employers who make interstate transfers of employees that 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’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, thanking Williams for tackling this issue on the state-level as he worked to do the same on the national one. “The Jeremy Bell Act will unify reporting laws, criminalize the interstate transfer of predators and literally save lives.”
And for parents and educators alike, that is the bottom line.
James P. Capalupo, superintendent of the Springfield School District, said Pennsylvania has made great strides in bolstering protections against sexual misconduct by school employees. Even if offenders remain relatively small in number, one, especially if it’s preventable, is too many, he said.
He hailed SB 1381 as a “powerful new tool to prevent the kind of tragedy that took the life of Jeremy Bell,” and encouraged Williams and his federal colleagues to continue their work.
“Students need to go to classrooms feeling safe in order to find success,” Capalupo said. “Provide us with the laws to protect our students from predators.”
About the S.E.S.A.M.E. Coalition
S.E.S.A.M.E. is working to pass legislation that will increase safety for children in schools by preventing educators accused of sexual abuse from moving to another school district without his or her new employer being alerted to the allegations of misconduct. Known as “passing the trash,” this happens far too often and it must be stopped. To join our legislation efforts, please click here, Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter (@SesameCampaign).