HARRISBURG, Feb. 6, 2012 — Current state law allows educators who are accused of sexual misconduct with students an opportunity to escape prosecution and even relocate to another district, an injustice that state Sen. Anthony H. Williams said he would stop through his recently introduced legislation.
Williams is the author of Senate Bill 1381, which would address the growing number of educators who are punished for alleged sexual misconduct, but allowed to relocate to a new school district because of the failure by school administrators to report the abuse.
“If anything, the allegations in the Penn State scandal have re-affirmed that ducking issues of sexual abuse by educators harms children, sometimes for life,” Williams said. “It’s unacceptable and inexcusable that such reprehensible behavior has been able to fester in our public schools due to a gaping loophole. We must end that. Now.”
The loophole, known as “passing the trash,” sometimes means districts give the educator accused of sexual misconduct personal incentives for resigning, including glowing letters of recommendation, health benefits, confidentiality agreements between the school and the abuser, and the option to surrender one’s teaching certificate in lieu of legal action.
In the past year, 50 out of 100 notifications regarding educator disciplinary actions were related to sexual misconduct, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Just 10 of the actions resulted in suspensions, and 16 individuals had their certification revoked, in comparison to 24 who were given the option to surrender their certificate in lieu of facing discipline.
It is estimated that one in 10 students will be sexually abused by a member of the school staff during their school career, according to the Stop Educator Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation Organization. The practice of shuffling offenders and poor teachers off to new districts is not unique to Pennsylvania. Some states also refer to this phenomenon as “the lemon dance,” as highlighted in the film, Waiting for Superman.
“Because of this culture of secrecy, many cases are not entered into criminal justice information systems, but instead are handled through informal personnel actions within the relative privacy of school employee records,” Williams said. “This is an outrageous practice that places the protection of the accused predator above the safety of our children. It is an injustice to the integrity of our public school systems.
“Instead of making lemonade from the ‘lemon dance,’ we need to do what we always do with rotten fruit: throw it away,” he said. “We don’t need to pass this trash any longer. Not when our children’s safety is at stake.”
A database created by the nonprofit National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) is the existing tool for education officials to prevent problem teachers from jumping state to state.
Some less populous states have more cases in the database than larger states. For example, Oregon, the 27th most populous state, has 953 cases, whereas New York, the third most populous state, has 897 cases. Pennsylvania, the sixth most populous state, has 704 cases in the database. But Williams contends this system is flawed.
The database is both over and under inclusive, said Williams, who noted that teachers who fail to repay college loans may be reported while serious cases of abuse are reported in many instances only if it resulted in a criminal conviction.
“The current system is not only unfair to the majority of educators who are working hard in the classroom, but it’s an injustice to victims of sexual abuse,” Williams said. “This trend must stop, for the sake of all of Pennsylvania’s public school students.”
Senate Bill 1381 tightens employment review for school entities by requiring schools to obtain information from all of a prospective employee’s current and past employers, such as whether the educator or any other prospective school employee was ever subject to an investigation for sexual abuse or misconduct by Child Protective Services; subject to a misconduct or abuse investigation not related to sexual abuse; disciplined, discharged, non-renewed, or asked to resign from a job; and resigned (or surrendered their teaching certificate in lieu of discipline) while an investigation or allegations were pending.
In addition, the school would be required to check the certification status of the prospective teacher to determine if they have a valid, active certificate from the Pennsylvania Department of Education or another state.
“My legislation will ensure families that their children are learning and growing in a safe environment,” Williams said. “No family should have to worry that their children are in danger during the school day.”
To further examine this issue, the Senate Education Committee will have a public hearing on Senate Bill 1381 on Wednesday, Feb. 8 in Hearing Room 1of the North Office Building, located in the state Capitol complex in Harrisburg.
The hearing will be broadcast live on PCN.
Sen. Anthony H. Williams represents the 8th Senatorial District, serving parts of Philadelphia and Delaware Counties. More information on Sen. Williams may be found on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.