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State ranks low with school sex abuse law

Poor showing in survey drives legislative review

Saturday, May 31, 2003

By Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writer

When the Professional Educator Discipline Act went into effect in February 2001, state Rep. Jess Stairs figured it would make Pennsylvania "state of the art" in laws protecting children from sexual abuse by teachers.

But two years later, the state is actually at the bottom of a new survey that critiques the efforts of education departments nationwide to keep molesting teachers out of schools.

So next week, Stairs will once again approach fellow legislators to enlist their help in getting Pennsylvania out of the cellar.

"We need to go back and revisit this," said Stairs, R-Mount Pleasant, who introduced the discipline act in late 1999. He said he was surprised by the state's poor showing on the new survey. "We need to have a better standing."

Results of the survey, conducted by Education Week researchers who looked at the laws in all 50 states, placed Pennsylvania in the bottom 10.

While 42 states require fingerprinting of all teachers before they're licensed to teach, Pennsylvania does not.

And in 27 states, there are laws that specifically target "educators who abuse their positions of trust or authority by having sex with students," according to the survey.

Pennsylvania has no such law.

Pennsylvania law also offers no protection from defamation suits against school officials who give uncomplimentary job references for current or former employees. Seventeen other states do offer such protection, including Ohio and Maryland.

According to the survey, 11 states also provide some protection for students by setting the "age of consent" at 18 -- the age at which a child is presumed to be legally able to consent to sex under statutory rape laws.

The age of consent in Pennsylvania is 16 years old -- reduced in 1995 from 18 years old. Colorado reported the youngest age of consent, at 15.

However, Pennsylvania is one of 19 states that require school officials to report to state officials any suspected sexual misconduct by educators. If officials fail to report those allegations, they too can be disciplined -- including the loss of their own license.

That measure was part of Stairs' educator discipline act, which was signed into law by former Gov. Tom Ridge. The act also provides that students who have been abused by their teachers will have until age 23 to report the abuse, regardless of when it occurred.

Formerly, the statute of limitation was one year after the abuse occurred.

Teachers who are found guilty of misconduct with students can lose their teaching license. But because not all charter school teachers are required to be certified, that punishment could not be applied to them.

The new law, however, changed that and stipulated that unlicensed teachers still can be punished for sexual misconduct by suspending their eligibility to be employed by a charter school.

And, the law protects the identity of the student or other alleged victim making a complaint against a teacher "unless or until discipline, other than a private reprimand, is ordered."

Another recent change in state law requires anyone who's lived in Pennsylvania for less than two years to get both state and FBI criminal background checks before being licensed to teach, said Brian Christopher, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Fingerprinting measures have been introduced in the state Legislature in the past, but those measures have failed.

Stairs, who is chairman of the House education committee, said he plans next week to begin "some inquiry to up the standards" of laws designed to protect students from sexual misconduct by teachers.

Fingerprinting may be on the table, but "we need to look at the pros and cons," said Stairs.

Currently, there are no bills being considered in the Legislature that deal with sexual misconduct by educators, according to Christopher.

The state Board of Education also isn't considering any policy changes, said board member Francis J. Michelini. Such policies can be tricky, said Michelini, who also serves as an ex-officio member of the Pennsylvania Standards and Practices Commission. The commission investigates claims of abuse and hands out penalties to guilty educators.

"It's a Catch-22 situation," said Michelini, because of the need to protect the privacy of students and the rights of teachers.

He said the commission works to keep teachers from being falsely accused, but also serves as a strong advocate for students who have been abused.

"They function extremely carefully," he said of the commission members, but added that the state board would be open to any proposed improvements.

According to the Education Week data, states with the toughest laws against educator misconduct include Virginia, South Carolina, New Mexico, Minnesota and Colorado.

Each has specific laws against teachers who molest students; each requires fingerprinting for licensure, requires administrators to report suspected abuse, and protects those administrators from defamation lawsuits.

Jane Elizabeth can be reached at jelizabeth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.

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