Pennsylvania

“Passing the Trash” Bills Unpopular With Teacher Unions

Policy

It’s called “passing the trash” and it is shorthand in the education community for getting rid of teachers and administrators who may have harmed children, to avoid public scrutiny and  legal cases.

In incidents widely documented across the nation, teachers who have, or are suspected of having, sexually abused or otherwise harmed students in their care, have been allowed to voluntarily resign or temporarily surrender their teaching credentials and simply move on. Later, these same teachers have been able to obtain new teaching jobs or jobs working with children.

The background checks of such predator-educators are often stymied by the concerns of former employers about releasing personal information or, in some cases, the resignations were painted to appear as voluntary departures.

State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia), who has spent nearly three years trying to close those loopholes, may have succeeded with the passage of Senate Bill 46, which passed the Senate with a 50-0 vote and, on Tuesday, was unanimously voted out of the House Education Committee. The bill is expected to be voted on by the House next month.

“Today’s action shows the collective resolve to ensure the greatest protections we can offer our children and families from school-based predators, as well as hard working educators and support staff whose reputations also are tainted when a colleague’s action turn hideously criminal,” Williams said.

The Williams bill will tighten and close a variety of loopholes in current law, including requiring the job applicant or independent contractor to consent to a full background check of previous employers, declare any past investigations of his or her activities, and give a detailed, verifiable description of reasons for leaving past positions.

The state needs to “end ‘passing the trash’ once and for all,” Williams said.

The Pennsylvania Education Association (PSEA) and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), the largest teacher unions in the state, are both “neutral” on SB 46, said a Williams spokesperson. “We consider that a victory,” she said.

Efforts to end “Pass the Trash” were triggered at state and federal levels following the death of a 12-year-old West Virginia student named Jeremy Bell who, Williams said, was “groomed, abused and ultimately murdered” by his high school principal in 1997. Bell’s family claimed the principal, Edgar Friedrichs, had a record of child molestation in Pennsylvania prior to working in West Virginia.

The Bell family was awarded $2.2 million in damages in 2006 and Friedrichs is serving life in prison following convictions for molesting two other youths in 2002.

The Bell tragedy also became the foundation for a website called S.E.S.A.M.E. , Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation.

The U.S. House of Representatives also passed an “pass the trash” bill on Tuesday, over the objections of the National Education Association (NEA), the parent group of PSEA, and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the parent group of the PFT.

The NEA complained criminal background checks “often have a huge, racially disparate impact,” while the AFT argued the bill could damage worker protections provided by union contracts. The “racial disparity” argument did not, however, prevent the NEA from pushing for expanded background checks for gun purchases.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Education does not maintain a list of felony convictions or charges against educators or administrators, nor does it maintain records relating to actions by the state’s 500 school districts in such cases. School districts have discretion on the course of action they may take in such cases, a spokesman said.

“When an educator is convicted of a felony, the district will be prohibited from employing the educator for a period of time following the expiration of the educator’s sentence,” he said. “The length of the employment ban depends upon the nature of the offense for which the educator was convicted.”

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