Senate bill would require school background checks



WASHINGTON — A year ago, Sens. Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin struck a background checks deal that appeared to offer the best chance for lawmakers to curb gun purchases by criminals and mentally ill people with a history of violence. Their effort was no match for gun owners’ groups that convinced Congress that the senators’ bill was an assault on the Second Amendment.

Now the bipartisan duo is back with another proposal to require background checks — this one for people seeking jobs in public schools.

The bill from Mr. Toomey, R-Pa., and Mr. Manchin, D-W.Va., is now in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which could take it up in the coming weeks. The measure has widespread support, including from the nation’s largest teachers union. And the House unanimously passed a similar measure last session.

That leaves some observers stunned that Congress may find it easier to require background checks for people who want to help children than for people who want to buy weapons that have been used to kill them.

“I wish that our legislators would demonstrate a consistency of thought and courage on the totality of background checks issues,” said E. Patricia Llodra, the top public official in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 children and six educators in December 2012.

“Let’s keep persons of questionable character away from our children and let’s keep guns out of the hands of those same persons,” Ms. Llodra said. “How do we do the one without seeing the need for the other?”

Dubbed the Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act, the Manchin-Toomey effort would require that job applicants’ background checks include reviews of at least two state and two federal databases. It also would require periodic background checks of staffers already working for the district.

It would prohibit school districts from hiring anyone ever convicted of violent or sexual crimes, homicide or crimes against children such as abuse, neglect or pornography. It also would prohibit districts from hiring people convicted within the past five years of felony assault or drug offenses. Districts also would be prohibited from knowingly passing along abusers to other school districts in order to get rid of them.

Those that don’t comply would lose a portion of their federal school funding.

States and local school boards already require background checks, but some aren’t as extensive as Mr. Toomey and Mr. Manchin would require. They want districts to use the FBI’s fingerprint system and sex offender registries, among other databases.

According to the Government Accountability Office, 12 states don’t require background checks for contractors who have unsupervised contact with children.

Thirty-three don’t require them of school volunteers. And five states have policies that don’t apply to some categories of employees such as bus drivers and coaches. The GAO report did not specify which states.

Pennsylvania requires background checks on school employees including student teachers and contractors who work with students, according to the Department of Education’s website. They include checks of state and federal criminal records plus a check of child abuse records through the Department of Public Welfare.

The legislation is inspired by the 1997 rape and murder of Jeremy Bell, a 12-year-old victimized in West Virginia by teacher Edgar Friedrichs Jr., who is now serving a life sentence.

Years before, Friedrichs was accused of sexual improprieties while teaching in Delaware County, Pa., but there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute him. Instead, the school district got rid of him by recommending him to other school districts in a practice Mr. Toomey calls “pass the trash.”

“The very sad truth is that Jeremy Bell is not alone,” Mr. Toomey said in a recent speech on the Senate floor.

He read letters written by other victims of sexual assault, including a South Carolinian who said a teacher repeatedly abused him from age 9 through high school.

Later, during court proceedings, he learned that his attacker, Eddie Fischer, had abused at least 29 other boys over 37 years and that school administrators suspected it but did nothing.

Arrested in 1997, Fischer was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

“I always felt what the school did was far worse than what Fischer did. Fischer was sick — an evil monster — but the school just calculated the damage to its public relations. We kids were dispensable, which was a whole other category of evil,” the victim wrote. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette does not identify victims of sexual assault.

Now Mr. Toomey and Mr. Manchin want to protect other children from abuse.

“We’ve got the tools to prevent this … and we certainly shouldn’t be letting another school year begin in a matter of weeks without doing something,” Mr. Toomey said on the Senate floor.

Mr. Manchin said it’s common sense to ensure people who work with children pass background checks.

“There are millions of teachers, school staff and additional workers employed by our public school districts, and yet there is no national background check policy in place for the people who work directly with our kids every day,” he said in a written statement. “Every child deserves to have at least one place where they feel safe – and for many of our kids these days, that place is at school.”

Patricia Potter, an elementary school teacher in Fairfax County, Va., appreciates the senators’ effort but is disappointed Congress hasn’t done more to protect children from gun violence. She founded the advocacy group Teachers for Gun Control to oppose proposals by the National Rifle Association and others who have said the solution to school violence is to arm teachers.

Ms. Potter said the new legislation is sensible but that “it’s equally important for government representatives to support universal background checks for gun purchases so that our schoolchildren will not become victims of another tragedy in the future.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was out of the country and could not be reached. But in The Wall Street Journal in January, she said the labor union supports enhanced school background checks for educators as well as efforts to reduce gun violence in schools.

“Sexual predators have no place around children, much less in classrooms. And background checks must be used to keep such predators out of the profession in the first place,” she wrote.

Mr. Toomey said more than 275 teachers have been arrested for assaulting students this year alone.

“When you put your kid on a school bus, you expect that child will be in a safe environment all day long — on the school bus ride, while they’re in school and on the way back home. Frankly, we owe it to parents as well as to their children to do all that we can to ensure that they have a safe environment, as safe as we can make it for our kids,” Mr. Toomey said.


Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets. First Published August 1, 2014 12:48 AM

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