Stop the next Sandusky

Jerry Sandusky (center) leaves the Centre County Courthouse after being found guilty of child sexual abuse. Associated Press
Jerry Sandusky (center) leaves the Centre County Courthouse after being found guilty of child sexual abuse. Associated Press
Posted: July 17, 2012

THE APPARENT concerted effort by top Penn State officials to harbor a sexual predator for the sake of their football program is despicable, yet unsurprising. The shameful truth is that it happens far more than the public realizes, especially in schools, where there are thousands of students being sexually abused by the very educators, coaches and school officials entrusted with their well-being.

What's worse, flaws in state and federal law are allowing school officials and teachers union officials who know of suspected abuse to harbor these predators. In Pennsylvania, for instance, educators accused of sexual misconduct are often given the opportunity to escape prosecution and even move to another state or district, a practice so common it is nicknamed "passing the trash."

With union-negotiated confidentiality agreements and glowing recommendations from administrators, perpetrators are abetted to leave without ever being reported to law enforcement and with their sanitized teaching credentials intact. They move on with an apparently clean background to the next unsuspecting school, where they are likely to abuse again. In fact, "the typical pedophile employed in our schools makes his or her way through three school-employment settings before being stopped."

The time has come to take a stand. No more cover-ups or excuses. We cannot let the problem of child sexual abuse in schools fade from public consciousness without passing critical reforms that will better protect our children.

Fortunately, there are a number of state and federal proposals on the table aiming to do just that. In December, U.S. Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., reintroduced the Jeremy Bell Act, which would penalize school employers who make interstate transfers of employees who are sex offenders. The bill also addresses sexual-conduct reporting standards and would require schools to submit instances of sexual misconduct to a national clearinghouse that other schools can access. In short, it would prohibit the aiding and abetting of child predators in our nation's schools — a reform that will literally save lives.

This legislation could not come soon enough. Overall, an estimated 1 in 10 students will be the victim of educator sexual misconduct during their school career, a ratio that equals about 4.5 million current K-12 students. Additionally, at least a quarter of all U.S. school districts have reportedly dealt with a case of sexual abuse over the last decade.

And the epidemic continues to grow. In February and March alone, more than 30 teachers were removed from Los Angeles schools for alleged sexual misconduct — the most infamous of whom was Mark Berdnt, an alleged pedophile who remained in the classroom nearly 20 years since the first complaints were lodged against him. Six months before his arrest, he was given a $40,000 retirement package instead of being reported to the proper authorities.

On the other coast, a slew of sexual-misconduct cases in New York City have come to light in recent months, the most notorious of which is that of an 88-year-old Horace Mann teacher who admitted his sexual encounters with students as young as 14. Other instances include a Brooklyn gym teacher accused of groping a student, a Bronx high school substitute teacher accused of forcible touching and an aide in Brooklyn accused of making child-pornography videos on school grounds.

The recent slew of sexual-abuse headlines must serve as more than cautionary tales — they must drive us toward true reform. It starts with the passage of the federal Jeremy Bell Act along with state legislation like Pennsylvania's SESAME Act. We must contact our lawmakers and continue to speak out until these measures become law.

The bottom line is that no child should be robbed of his or her innocence by an adult. We as a society must do everything in our power to ensure that child predators never make their way into a classroom and never go unpunished when they have committed the unconscionable offense of child sexual abuse.

Terri Miller is president of SESAME Inc. ("Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation").

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