By David Heckler, Bucks County District Attorney,
Tom Hogan, Chester County District Attorney
Jack Whelan, Delaware County District Attorney
Risa Vetri Ferman, Montgomery County District Attorney
Seth Williams, Philadelphia District Attorney
As prosecutors, we confront harrowing and heart-wrenching cases nearly every day. It is the child sexual abuse cases that are among the toughest and saddest cases we prosecute. Government’s first responsibility is to protect its people, especially our children. That is why we have an affirmative and moral duty not only to hold the sexual offenders accountable, but to try to prevent these cases as well. One thing we know is that child predators often seek out positions that provide them access to and power over children. Few jobs fit the bill so well as that of a teacher. A predator hired as a teacher is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, just waiting to attack our children.
Consider that since January 1 of this year, 119 teachers have been arrested across the United States for sexual misconduct with a child. 119! That is more than one assault for every day so far this year. Twelve of those cases were in Pennsylvania. They are horrific. One child’s abuse began at age 10 and only ended when, at age 17, she found herself pregnant with the teacher’s child. An 11th grade English teacher accused of performing sex acts with a teenager in her classroom. A 16 year-old girl raped by her instructor in a classroom closet. And these are just the predators who have been caught.
We need to prevent these kinds of terrible abuse. That is why we are asking the United States Senate to pass Senator Pat Toomey’s bill, the Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act.
This bipartisan bill requires any state education agency receiving federal funds to perform background checks on all employees and contractors—new hires and existing workers—who have access to children. Senator Toomey’s bill requires that the background checks be repeated regularly to prevent anyone from slipping through the cracks, and that the checks be extremely thorough, spanning two state and two federal databases.
Pennsylvania, unfortunately, currently falls short of this standard: Pennsylvania law requires background checks only for new hires, not existing employees. And if an applicant has been a state resident for two years, the school is required to check only the state’s databases, not the federal ones. Under Senator Toomey’s bill, a school may not hire a person if he or she has committed certain crimes, including any violent or sexual crime against a child.
Equally significant, Senator Toomey’s bill bans the reprehensible practice of a school letting a child predator quietly resign and move along to a new school, a practice so common it has its own moniker—“passing the trash.” Complementary legislation also has been introduced in the Pennsylvania General Assembly by Senator Anthony Williams and Representative David Maloney.
There are too many cases where schools, when faced with teachers who stand accused of sexual or other misconduct of students, have sought resignation of the teachers rather than an investigation. Why? To avoid public disclosure of the misconduct. That means a potential predator has landed at another school, ready to continue to abuse children. To value the reputation of a school over the safety of a child is a recipe for abuse, and it is time to stop incentivizing our schools to pass the trash.
In short, cases involving children, particular when there are allegations of sexual abuse, are among the most challenging to investigate and prosecute. More information, not less, helps law enforcement identify perpetrators and ensure they do not victimize anyone else.
We believe that Senator Toomey’s bill is simple common sense, for Pennsylvania and all 50 states. Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives House passed this bill unanimously. The U.S. Senate needs to act, and act now.