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OP-ED: Back to safer schools
Soon, my wife Kris and I will be joining parents across Pennsylvania in sending our kids back to school. When Kris and I send our three children — ages 15, 14 and 5 — to school, we need to know that they are going somewhere safe, with adults who care for them. Every parent deserves that assurance.
Sadly, this is not always the case. Last year, 459 teachers and other school employees were arrested for sexual misconduct with children, including 26 Pennsylvania educators. That is more than one per day — and 2015 is boding worse, with 285 arrests since Jan. 1, including 20 from Pennsylvania.
Each story represents a tragedy. A childhood shattered. A family torn by grief and betrayal.
It was the story of one little boy in particular that inspired my fight against child predators. The story begins in Delaware County. Child after child — boys 10 to 12 years old — came forward and told school officials how the fifth-grade science teacher had molested several boys and raped at least one.
The school, amazingly, decided to help the teacher: The principal wrote him a letter of recommendation and helped him land a new job in West Virginia. For two decades, that teacher continued to brutalize children in West Virginia until one night, 12-year old Jeremy Bell paid the price. He was raped and murdered by that educator.
I wish Jeremy Bell's story were unique. Sadly, what happened in Jeremy's case, a school helping a pedophile employee obtain a new job elsewhere, is so common that it has its own moniker — "passing the trash."
In 2013, I introduced bipartisan legislation that would end this horrific practice: the Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act. Working across the aisle, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and I have been fighting to pass this legislation for over a year and a half and finally put an end to "passing the trash."
I am proud that in July, for the first time ever, the U.S. Senate took action. During debate on a major education reform bill, the Senate passed our bipartisan amendment to end "passing the trash" unanimously, by a vote of 98 to 0. This federal legislation is crucial to protecting Pennsylvania children.
I am proud that Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that has banned passing the trash, but state legislation is not enough. Pennsylvania law cannot stop other schools in other states from passing their pedophile teachers into our state; only federal law can stop the transfers. Now our children will be protected from pedophiles traveling across state lines.
This was a hard-fought victory for our children. Amazingly, a ban on "passing the trash" faced strong opposition from senators on both sides of the aisle and from dozens of well-funded special interest groups. But ultimately, we were able to find common ground. I am grateful to the many child advocates, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, pediatricians and educators who fought beside me for the past year and a half. As Terri Miller, president of the child advocacy group S.E.S.A.M.E., put it, this is a "victory for student safety."
But that does not mean I am done fighting. Congress still needs to enact a background check requirement for those school workers who have unsupervised access to children — another key part of the Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act that Sen. Manchin and I introduced.
The greatest gift we give to the world is our children. I will never stop fighting to make sure every child is protected.
— Pat Toomey is a Republican senator from Pennsylvania.