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How can states curb schools' hiring of suspected sex offenders?

Recent legislation could stop the practice of allowing potential sexual abusers to hop from school to school, but laws regarding sexual misconduct in schools are few and far between, overall.

Steven Senne/AP/File
St. George's School in Middletown, R.I., where former students at the school recently alleged they were molested or raped there, mostly in the 1970s and '80s.

New federal legislation regarding the hiring of suspected child abusers by schools could help to curb sexual misconduct by school staff, a problem that has been addressed at the national scale only recently.

Across the United States education system, in both private and public schools, finding information on which teachers can be entrusted with children can be anything but straightforward. In many cases, past sexual misconduct or physical abuse by teachers may be covered up or shunted away; schools utilizing the practice known as “passing the trash” force teachers suspected of a transgression out of their system. But it’s common that those teachers don’t face any long-lasting consequences, and can end up employed at new schools without a solid background check to discover any possible misdeeds.

“This practice of passing the trash has created a large pool of mobile molesters that exist in our classrooms right now,” Terri Miller, president of the board of directors with the child advocacy group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation (SESAME), told The Christian Science Monitor in an interview.

According to the Associated Press, only three states currently have laws that ban “passing the trash” – Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Oregon. And while the AP reports that other states are currently considering similar legislation to crack down on teachers suspected of abuse, the majority of the US still has no concrete rules in place regarding how schools should handle situations involving aberrant employees.

A new measure passed through Congress and signed by President Barack Obama, the Every Student Succeeds Act, provides that schools receiving federal funding cannot help their employees find a new job if they are suspected of sexual misconduct. That portion of the bill was the first such national legislation to protect children from pedophiles in the classroom, and would not affect schools that do not receive federal funds.

A woman who was abused at the age of 16 while attending the Marlborough School in Los Angeles says harsher rules than the ones in place are long overdue, as her abuser Joseph Koetters was able to freely move on to another school after Marlborough. Mr. Koetters was sentenced to one year in prison last October for sexually molesting the woman and another girl at Marlborough, but without stronger legislation it’s possible teachers like Koetters would never face justice.

“It's clear that not just in Marlborough but in all these cases nationwide, the schools lack the will or the moral compass to take these measures on their own,” the unidentified woman told the AP.

The problem is widespread, and hard to address, due to school systems’ lack of transparency on the subject. A recent USA Today Network investigation graded states based on teacher misconduct and school hiring practices. Only seven states received an “A” grade, and 12 failed. Twenty-three states were awarded a “C” or “D.”

A new law in D-rated Connecticut would go further than the current federal legislation on the issue. The proposal states that schools would have to contact the past employers of teachers applying for a job to find out if the candidate was ever investigated or disciplined for sexual misconduct.

Opposition to the Connecticut measure comes from groups such as the teachers’ labor union AFT Connecticut, which says the bill overreaches despite its worthy goal. The union’s president, Jan Hochadel, told the AP that there “[A]ppears to be an assumption that school employees are guilty, rather than innocent before proven guilty.”

Ms. Hochadel could not be reached for comment by the Monitor Monday.

“I’m absolutely behind it,” Ms. Miller said of the proposal. “The mandating of transparent communication from administrator to administrator, that's how we stop these predators from getting in the classroom in the first place.”

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