U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey is pushing to get a bill passed before the new school year starts, hoping to reduce a growing number of students who have been abused by school employees.
But first, he has to get the proposal — the Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act — out of committee.
"Every day seems to bring a new report of a child robbed of his or her innocence by someone they should've been able to trust, someone their parents told them to obey," Toomey, a Republican, said on the Senate floor last week.
So far this year, 275 teachers nationwide have been arrested for sexual misconduct, he said.
More than a dozen of those teachers are from Pennsylvania, including Matthew Puterbaugh, 47, a former Dover Area School District music teacher who faces trial on three cases in York County: for allegedly having sex with a former student when she was between 12 and 16, for allegedly possessing 661 images of child pornography and for allegedly touching and videotaping female students without their knowledge or permission.
The proposal: Toomey's bill, which has gained several bipartisan co-sponsors, requires all school employees and private contractors to receive state and federal background checks.
Whether his legislation would have made a difference in the Puterbaugh case is unclear.
Pennsylvania has required state criminal background checks for new employees since 1986 and federal background checks since 2006.
Until 2011, school employees who were grandfathered in didn't have to submit any prior criminal record.
But three years ago, a state law required those employees to fill out a form disclosing any arrests or convictions of serious crimes.
Those forms take teachers at their word, said Stephen Fisher, director of student services for the state Department of Education.
Toomey's bill would require all teachers — regardless of tenure — to submit to background checks periodically through four major state and federal registries, including state and federal background checks, child abuse and neglect registries, the fingerprint identification system of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Sex Offender Registry.
If it is determined any educator lied on their state forms, it could result in termination. At the top of the form, it indicates to the signer that providing false statements is subject to criminal prosecution and other discipline, Fisher said of the current state regulation.
Pennsylvania currently only requires a background check one time for prospective employees.
While most states, like Pennsylvania, already require background checks for new school employees, there are five states that don't require them at all, according to the Government Accountability Office. A GAO representative did not return correspondence seeking information about the specific states.
And 12 states don't require background checks for private contractors, the office reported.
Repeated checks: Toomey's bill would not only require background checks for all employees and contractors who have access to children — such as teachers, administrators, coaches and bus drivers — they would be required to undergo repeated checks.
If a background check isn't clean, the bill permanently bans schools from hiring any employee convicted of a serious crime or crimes against children or those who have been convicted of a drug-related crime or felony within a five-year period prior to the background check.
The bill also prevents schools from recommending or transferring an alleged sexual predator to another school.
States that fail to comply with the bill would lose federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act funding.
"No state wants to lose that funding," Toomey said.
His bill has gained bipartisan support in the Senate, and companion legislation passed the House in October.
The bill is also backed by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, child advocacy groups, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, American Federation of Teachers, other teachers' groups, and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
"I don't think I'd be going far out on a limb to suggest that a huge majority of Americans support this legislation," Toomey said.
As a parent of three school-aged children, he said he knows all parents want their children to be safe and secure.
"We put them on a school bus and expect they will be in a safe environment all day long. We owe it to parents and their children to make sure it's a safe environment ... as safe as we can make it," Toomey said.
The 275 teachers arrested during the first six months of the year are reason enough to move the leglislation to the floor for a vote, he said in Senate chambers Thursday.
"That number should give us all pause. That's 275 tragedies," Toomey said. "We shouldn't let a new school year begin ... without doing something about this shameful number and without making sure that this number doesn't continue to grow."
—Reach Candy Woodall at firstname.lastname@example.org.