New law is needed to stop school sex abuse

Kenneth William Fuller, West Chester swim coach, is accused of sexually assaulting a female student.
Kenneth William Fuller, West Chester swim coach, is accused of sexually assaulting a female student.
Posted: May 23, 2012

I wanted to ask state Sen. Anthony Williams what he made of a West Chester high-school swim coach who has been accused of sexual misconduct with a student.

But so many local educators have been charged lately with letting their hands roam where they shouldn’t that I kept mixing up the names, dates and places.

In January, for instance, Delaware teacher Charles Coursey was charged with having sex with a 17-year-old student. The next month, another teacher from the First State, Matthew Pleasanton, was brought up on similar charges.

In March, it was church schoolteacher Nicole Jacques’ turn to be accused. Authorities in Hatfield Township, Montgomery County, say she bedded a 15-year-old who’d been her student.

April brought allegations that athletic trainer Ramon Cintron had sexually assaulted a 14-year-old at Cheltenham High School — a girl he had allegedly begged, in text messages, not to squeal on him because he “could get locked up.”

And last week, our accused predator of the month was the West Chester swim coach, Kenneth William Fuller. He allegedly pretended to be his female student’s father, signed her out of school, then plied her with Bud Lite Lime beer before engaging in an afternoon of hotel sex.

Thank God the school year is almost over.

“There’s an absolute epidemic” of sexual abuse by teachers, says Williams, who is holding a news conference in Harrisburg on Tuesday to garner support for his Senate Bill 1381, which addresses issues that he says aids and abets sexual misconduct by teachers. “I used to think the cases were all extreme. But the abuse is more widespread than I ever imagined.”

Widespread too, he says, is the desire of many school administrators that an accused teacher quietly resign, saving face for the district. To coax suspected offenders out the door, Williams says, administrators will write “glowing” letters of recommendation. Continue a teacher’s health benefits. Craft confidentiality agreements.

All of it allowing the teacher to find work in another district, where families and administrators are none the wiser — allowing a serial predator to re-offend.

The appalling practice has a crude nickname: “passing the trash.”

SB 1381 would require schools to find out whether a potential hire was ever subject to an investigation for sexual misconduct or abuse by the state’s Child Protective Services. It would also require the district to learn whether an applicant had been disciplined, discharged, nonrenewed or asked to resign from a job (or to surrender his or her teaching certificate) while an investigation or allegations were pending.

The bill passed this month by unanimous vote in the Senate Education Committee and now awaits full vote in the Senate (if Williams can light a fire under his brethren).

The requirements of SB 1381 seem so common sense, it’s hard to believe they’re not already in place. Truth is, though, Pennsylvania is not the only state passing the trash.

Shockingly, statistics show that a sexually abusive teacher will have offended in three school settings before the abuser finally gets reported to law enforcement and punished, says Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation (SESAME), a Nevada-based nonprofit that advocates nationally for laws like SB 1381. (In fact, SB 1381 is called the SESAME Act.)

“It can be so arduous, difficult and expensive to get rid of a teacher who has union protection that sometimes the school will just give up and say, ‘It’s easier to get them out of the district,’” says Miller. “But that deliberately endangers children.”

Passing the trash, she says, is similar to the coverup by the Catholic Church of sexual abuse by its predator priests. But it’s far more pervasive.

“In 1988 alone, the Department of Justice estimated that 103,600 children had been sexually abused in their schools,” she says. That figure trumps by tenfold the number of children estimated to have been abused by U.S. Catholic priests over five decades. “Some of the cases have been horrific.”

Like that of Jeremy Bell, a West Virginia boy who was sexually abused and then murdered in 1997 by his school principal, Edgar Friedrichs, a former Prospect Park, Delaware County, principal who silently slithered to West Virginia after being accused of sexual misconduct here.

A proposed federal law called the Jeremy Bell Act of 2011, whose sponsors include local U.S. Reps. Pat Meehan and Mike Fitzpatrick, would establish criminal and civil penalties for employers who allow sex abusers to work in another state. It also establishes a national clearinghouse of offender names that can be accessed by schools in other states.

“We want to make sure there is transparency among all the people responsible for protecting our children,” says Loren Riegelhaupt, attorney for SESAME. “Right now, it’s as if the teacher is being protected over the student. That has to stop.”

Contact polaner@phillynews.com. Call 215-854-2217. Blog: www.phillynews.com/ronnieblog. Twitter: @RonniePhilly.

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