Frequent headlines detailing cases of children falling victim to sexually abusive coaches, teachers, principals, custodians and other school staff has state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams calling on the General Assembly to finally pass legislation that would better address the problem in Pennsylvania.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 1 in 10 students is the target of educator sexual misconduct sometime during his or her academic career.
Williams and an array of child abuse prevention champions today vowed to enact a bipartisan bill that would protect countless children across Pennsylvania from sexual predators in schools.
“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.”
Williams’ (D-Philadelphia) bill would close a glaring loophole that has allowed districts to hire school employees with a history of investigations and dismissals for abuse or sexual misconduct. While “passing the trash” affects a minority of school employees, the impact such predators can have can last 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.”
Williams introduced this measure previously but the bill died when the session ended last year.
“This is a commonsense legislative prescription,” said state Rep. Cherelle Parker, chair of 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.”
SB 46, the SESAME Act – named for a national grassroots campaign, Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, Inc. – continues to wind through legislative chambers. It sailed through the state Senate’s education committee unanimously, earning support from Republicans and Democrats.
“Passing the SESAME Act to prohibit passing the trash is simply the right thing to do,” said Terri L. Miller, executive director for the national campaign. “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. What Pennsylvania does here would have an impact on the nation.”
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.
In the most extreme cases, the offenses go far beyond touching or assault.
Roy E. Bell’s son was murdered by his principal, a man who once taught in Delaware County but fled to West Virginia when suspicions about his behavior mounted. Jeremy Bell was just 12.
“Another cold and cruel example of passing the trash,” his father said.
Betty Ferguson’s daughter, Debbie, was murdered by her teacher, after being raped, sodomized, and strangled. While it has been almost four decades since the horror, the Erie resident lives with that reality.
Worse, she said she knows the story is being repeated with some variation even now.
“It was all by a person she trusted,” Ferguson said. “I talk to people now and ask them if they’ve ever been touched by someone in school and every person I ask has said, ‘Yes.’ But no one wants to talk about it. It’s a problem.”
Williams said stories like Ferguson’s and Bell’s are why his bill has won support from groups such as the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys’ Association, among others.
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.”
“But it’s for the Bettys, the Roys and the still untold numbers of other parents and children grappling with the shame and hurt that it’s critical to pass this bill,” Williams said.
“It’s my hope and prayer that this bill will give some level of peace to the countless scores of parents who are out there and suffering in silence,” he said. “The question is: Do we do something before the crime occurs or do we do something after the crime occurs?”