02/15/16 – By Steve Reilly
In 1997, West Virginia fifth grade student Jeremy Bell died of what was believed to be a head injury while on a camping trip with the principal of his school, Edgar Friedrichs Jr. Nearly eight years later, investigators determined it was not a head injury. Bell had been sexually abused and killed by his principal, according to state criminal records and documents filed in a subsequent federal lawsuit.
Probing deeper, officials realized Friedrichs had been dismissed by a Pennsylvania school for sexual misconduct allegations years earlier, but the school helped him get his job in West Virginia.
The story of Jeremy Bell, and others like it, helped provide the impetus for federal changes proposed over the past decade that would mandate background checks for teachers, require states and districts to share data about disciplined teachers and prohibit school districts from facilitating the transfer of a teacher accused of sexual misconduct to another jurisdiction.
Among the proposals have been efforts to require that names of teachers disciplined for sexual misconduct be reliably and consistently submitted to a national, government-run database and to make the information more readily available to the public.
Many states’ discipline records are not online. Those that are can be difficult to find, hard to search and lead to incomplete or redacted documentation obscuring what the teacher did.
A bill introduced by then-representative Adam Putnam, R Fla., in 2007 would have required the U.S. Department of Education to develop a database of teachers found to have engaged in sexual misconduct and make that information available to the public.
“Without adopting systematic policies and procedures at the national level,” Putnam said of this Student Protection Act, “all states remain vulnerable when hiring school employees from states with mediocre reporting procedures and lackluster reporting standards.” Putnam’s legislation failed to gain traction, but advocacy and education policy groups have continued to push for a more reliable way to share information between states.
Terri Miller, president of the advocacy group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation, said there should be a federal requirement that states report teacher misconduct into an official, national database.
Children are mandated to attend school, she said. “We want to make sure that the federal government is doing everything they can to make sure that our children are being protected while they’re in these schools.”
More recently, the Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act was championed by U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. It included provisions that would require states to conduct background checks on school employees and prohibit school officials from facilitating the transfer of teachers accused of sexual misconduct to a new district.
Opponents included Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who said in April 2014 that he opposed the bill because responsibility for checking teachers’ backgrounds should be local. “If we want safe schools, that is the job of parents, communities, school boards and states,” Alexander said.