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Senate must act on child-protection legislation

First appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer

  |  Senator Pat Toomey July 7, 2015

No one doubted that the fifth-grade science teacher at Prospect Park Elementary School was a pedophile. Child after child, boys 10 to 12 years old came forward and told the Delaware County school stories of the teacher groping boys' crotches, stripping boys naked, and performing multiple sexual acts on young children - raping at least one.

The school, amazingly, decided to take the teacher's side. The principal wrote the teacher a letter of recommendation and helped him land a new job in Fayetteville, W.Va.

One brave Pennsylvania boy tried to have the teacher prosecuted. But he crumbled while telling his story, and the case was over.

For two decades, that teacher continued to brutalize children in West Virginia. The school district ignored complaints from parents. Twelve-year-old Jeremy Bell paid the price. The educator raped and murdered him one night.

As a father of three young children, I wish Jeremy Bell's story was just a freak occurrence. Sadly, it is not.

Last year, 459 teachers and other school employees were arrested across America for sexual misconduct with children - well over one for each day of the year. Twenty-six of the arrests involved Pennsylvania educators.

This year has started off even worse: Halfway through 2015, we have seen 265 arrests, including 15 in Pennsylvania.

This week, the U.S. Senate will have a chance to take an important step at stopping these tragedies when it considers my Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act.

The bipartisan Protecting Students Act states that if a school takes federal funds, it must perform thorough background checks on all school workers. Amazingly, 12 states do not run background checks on coaches, substitute teachers, and classroom aides who are hired as contractors.

Under my legislation, the background checks would have to be comprehensive, covering the various federal and state databases. And my bill also bans "passing the trash" - helping pedophiles move to other school districts - thereby protecting other children from the fate of Jeremy Bell.

This bill should not be controversial. The House of Representatives passed it unanimously in the last Congress. And last fall, Congress enacted legislation requiring similar background checks for day-care facilities by a vote of 523-1.

Yet my Protecting Students Act faces opposition from some lawmakers and special interests. Some complain that criminal background checks are too much of a "burden." I believe that a simple background check to weed out pedophiles is not much of a burden in return for federal taxpayer money. After all, should taxpayers be subsidizing schools that employ child rapists and are putting our kids at risk?

The leaders of the nation's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association, sent a letter to Congress protesting that it is unfair to tell an admitted, convicted child rapist who has completed his prison sentence that he may not be alone in a classroom with small children. Convicted felons, the letter stated, "should not be subjected to additional punishment because of these convictions."

This raises the question: Whom are we seeking to protect? Is our goal to protect the employment of convicted child rapists? Or is our goal to protect children from sexual abuse?

My goal is to protect our children. That is why my legislation puts children first. And that is why my background-checks bill is the only one that has been endorsed by child-protection groups, law enforcement, prosecutors, and pediatricians.

When I send my children to school, I need to know they are safe. Every parent and every child deserves that. That is why I hope that the Senate will pass the Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act. It's time to do the right thing for our kids so they will not become the next Jeremy Bell.