Pa. House panel OKs sex abuse bill aimed at schools

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HARRISBURG -- The state House of Representatives is preparing to take up legislation aimed at ensuring schools know if prospective employees have been investigated or disciplined for sexual misconduct.

A bill requiring schools to review the work histories of applicants who would work with children cleared the House Education Committee unanimously on Wednesday. The legislation also would prohibit schools from entering into agreements that would keep confidential an investigation into suspected abuse or sexual misconduct by an employee.

Another version of the legislation passed the Senate in June and the House committee in October but has not reached a vote on the House floor. With numerous amendments proposed to that bill, House leaders instead plan to run the new version when the chamber reconvenes at the end of the month.

Terri Miller, president of the advocacy group S.E.S.A.M.E., or Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation, spoke Wednesday at the Capitol in support of the Senate bill, on which her group worked along with the office of its sponsor, Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia.

"One of the most evil practices that happens in our schools when a teacher sexually offends a child is that the system insulates itself and totally disregards the trauma and the victimization of a child," Ms. Miller said in an interview. "They end up protecting a perpetrator and their system rather than providing the much-needed services and emergency response that a victim deserves."

State law requires criminal background checks of applicants for jobs in public schools. People convicted of certain crimes are barred for a period of time from being hired for jobs involving direct contact with children.

Under the proposal that passed the House committee Wednesday, job applicants would have to authorize past employers to disclose the information. They also would have to state in writing whether they had been the subject of an investigation of abuse or sexual misconduct and whether they had been disciplined or fired amid such allegations.

Schools would be required to ask past employers if the applicant had been the subject of any abuse or sexual misconduct investigation and if they had been disciplined or fired while such allegations were pending. The former employers would be required to disclose the information and protected from criminal or civil liability related to the disclosure.

Schools also would be barred from entering into a labor contract or other agreement that would suppress information related to allegations of abuse or sexual misconduct.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association supports the bill.

"We think it's a commonsense approach to protecting children and provides the proper legal protection that school districts need to pass on important information about employees as they move from one system to another," said spokesman Steve Robinson.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, had initially expressed concerns about how the Senate bill would affect the rights of teachers but took a neutral position after changes were made.


Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.

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