Legislation would make districts aware of problems

Last updated: March 09. 2014 11:32PM - 4297 Views
By - mguydish@timesleader.com

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It’s called “passing the trash.” A teacher faces discipline for misconduct, resigns before repercussions, and ends up teaching in another district, the suspect history left behind and undisclosed to the new employer.

A state bill designed to eliminate the practice sailed unanimously through the state Senate and the House of Representative’s education committee, but has stalled.

“I can’t believe this isn’t already current law,” state Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Hughestown, said. Carroll, who sits on the House education committee, said he voted to move the bill out of committee but no action has been taken. Why?

“I can speculate, based on an announcement that the House education committee is going to consider, on March 12, House Bill 2063,” Carroll said. “Which looks like an identical bill, as far as I can see.”

Why introduce a separate bill rather than put the Senate version up for a vote? Carroll declined to guess, other than to say it’s part of the “sausage making” of Harrisburg politics. And in this case, he said, it doesn’t matter. The idea behind both bills is so useful that “one of these bills will get to the finish line and be signed by June 30,” the end of the current legislative session.

SB 46 would greatly expand a school district’s access to records of discipline or allegations and investigations of a teacher’s misconduct while employed by another district. It also grants legal immunity for providing the information.

Specifically, the bill would require the hiring district to request and the sending district to provide — among other things — written information as to whether a teacher:

• “Has been the subject of an abuse or sexual misconduct investigation … unless the investigation resulted in a finding that the allegations were false.

• “Has ever been disciplined, discharged, non-renewed, asked to resign from employment, resigned from or otherwise separated from any employment while allegations of abuse or sexual misconduct” were pending or under investigation.

• “Has ever had a license, professional license or certificate suspended, surrendered or revoked while allegations of abuse or sexual misconduct” were pending or under investigation.

The information must be provided within 20 days on a standardized form to be developed by the Department of Education. Additional info can be requested if the hiring district feels it is needed.

The bill would explicitly make information provided by one district to another “not public record” under the state’s Right To Know law, meaning residents, taxpayers or media could not see the reports.

The district that provides the information “shall be immune from criminal liability.” And a district is not allowed to hire an applicant who does not provide the information.

“Civil penalties could result for those who do not comply,” Carroll noted.

The bill would make into law and expand what has been part of the Department of Education’s Code of Professional Practices and Conduct for Educators for years.

Sexual misconduct with students is a violation of that code, and superintendents are required to report any resignations, firings or dismissals related to such conduct to the state or risk a fine. The information is then supposed to be put into a database accessible by other districts.

The state Professional Standards and Practices Commission typically would review such reports and consider discipline, including revocation of a license, for the teacher.

All of those safeguards were set up to end the practice of keeping teacher problems out of the public eye by letting a teacher quietly leave the district and look for employment elsewhere.

Even with those policies, for years it was not illegal for a teacher to have sexual relations with a student 16 or older. Teachers engaging in such relations at best usually faced charges of corrupting a minor.

That changed in December 2011, when the state expanded the institutional sexual assault law — originally applying to prisoners and guards — to cover students and teachers.The new law came into play in recent months locally.

Wyoming Valley West English teacher Lauren Harrington-Cooper and Hanover Area social studies teacher Edward Evans were both charged with institutional sexual assault stemming from alleged relations with students.

Senate Bill 46, and the mirror bill HB2063 poised for proposal in the House, add further restrictions by requiring hiring districts to request — and former employers to provide — information on discipline for and investigations into sexual misconduct with students, even if a teacher left before discipline or an investigation was completed.

In an email, state Rep. Karen Boback, R-Harveys Lake, said “Employees who have engaged in sexual misconduct with students should not simply be able to resign and move on to another district,” and that she looks forward to House consideration of the bill.

Carroll was unequivocal in his support. “I voted for (SB 46) in committee, and without having read HB 2063 in advance I’m certain I’ll be supportive of it.”

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