At a public hearing last month, state senators choked back tears as they listened to parents sharing how their children were sexually abused by teachers who were allowed to move from one school district to another with no record, free to repeat their predatory ways on even more unsuspecting students.
After pausing at times to collect their composure, these parents spoke for nearly 30 minutes of the aftermath their children still face. Teens that were once outgoing have become withdrawn and despondent, their relationships rocked and innocence shattered. All because of insidious behavior by people who betrayed a common trust.
Despite reliving their pain, they came to tell their truth, and to affirm that this is behavior that must stop, and will stop if state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams can move Senate Bill 1381 to passage.
“Parents and their children don’t need to suffer in silence,” Williams said after the parents’ testimony. “I have two daughters. These parents here today were much more composed than I would be.”
His S.E.S.A.M.E. bill, named for the national Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation organization’s efforts to protect school children, would address the growing number of educators who are reprimanded but never made to pay for their crimes against children. The misstep comes due to failure bred by fear among school administrators when it comes to reporting allegations of 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 schools due to a gaping loophole. We must end that. Now.”
That 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 even the option to surrender one’s teaching certificate in lieu of legal action.
“Every effort must be made to safeguard our children from the devastating trauma of sexual abuse in schools,” said Terri Miller, president of S.E.S.A.M.E. Inc. “A strong victim prevention-centered law like Sen. Anthony Williams’ act (SB1381) is a great start to ensure that educators who molest children will not be secretly defended and find their way into our classrooms ever again.”
It is estimated that 1 in 10 students – about 4.5 million children in the United States – will be sexually abused by a member of the school staff during their school career, according to S.E.S.A.M.E. 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,” a means of shifting around unwanted teachers, as highlighted in the film, Waiting for Superman.
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 misconduct or abuse by Child Protective Services; 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.
“There will be no more backroom deals to encourage these abusive teachers to go away quietly to prey on children in another school district,” said Williams. “No family should have to worry that their children are in danger during the school day.”
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.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to thank Pennsylvania State Sen. Anthony Williams for his advocacy on behalf of the children of the state,” said Tina Tranauskas, victim advocate for PA School Watch, which works to stop sexual abuse in Pennsylvania schools, and to provide a support system for these families.
“The abhorrent practice of ‘passing the trash’ has left a trail of victims throughout our educational institutions.
“The predatory behavior of problematic teachers does not end when they leave the school grounds of one district and show up in another classroom,” Tranauskas added. “The secretive separation agreements and letters of recommendation that administrations use to relieve themselves of their moral obligation to protect our children, makes those administrators culpable in the subsequent actions of predatory teachers.”
A database created by the nonprofit National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) is the only existing tool for education officials to prevent problem teachers from jumping state to state.
But that database is both over and under inclusive, said Williams, who contends this system is flawed.
He notes some less populous states have more cases in the database than larger states, which draws questions about its weighting. 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.
Meanwhile, teachers who fail to repay college loans may be reported, but 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. “We must do better. As is, we do an injustice to the integrity of our public school systems and a profound disservice in our role as protectors of our children.
“Instead of making lemonade from the ‘lemon dance,’ we need to do what we always do with rotten fruit: throw it away. We don’t need to pass this trash any longer. Not when our children’s safety is at stake.”