By Melissa Klaric
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
Sexual abuse by teachers and coaches was brought to the forefront in Pennsylvania as a result of the high profile cases of Brother Stephen Baker and Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Baker, a Franciscan friar, killed himself in January after being accused of sexually abusing students at John F. Kennedy High School, Warren, Ohio, in the late ’80s and early ’90s and at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown, Pa.
Sandusky, a retired coach, was sent to prison last year for 30 to 60 years for sexually assaulting 10 boys.
Locally, Jamestown High School teacher Kevin A. DeFrancesco was sentenced in November to three nine-month sentences, to be served consecutively, for sexual abuse of children, unlawful contact with a minor, and attempt to commit sexual abuse with children after he sent inappropriate text messages to two female students, ages 13 and 14.
With the recent arrest of Robert A. Palko Jr., a former art teacher at West Middlesex High School who is accused of texting with and receiving nude photos from a student, the issue has struck a nerve closer to home.
“School reform is not just fiscal or about numbers, it is reform in all areas, including school safety, higher teaching standards – this includes protecting our children,” said Nia Ngina-Meeks, public relations officer for state Sen. Anthony L. Williams, D-8th District.
Williams, of Philadelphia, has introduced legislation intended to put an end to a practice known as “passing the trash” in Pennsylvania schools.
“Passing the trash” is a term that has become popular because of backroom deals made by school officials with teachers and coaches caught sexually abusing students. Williams’ office said they have found that school districts keep these deals quiet so the school’s reputation does not get tarnished.
Schools across Pennsylvania and the nation have quietly fired or forced resignation or retirement on teachers and coaches accused of sexual misconduct. A confidentiality agreement allows them to move quietly to another school district, teaching license in tow, without alerting police or a new employer of the allegations, state officials said.
This practice has allowed bad teachers and sexual molesters in schools to be “passed” from one school to the next, favoring the system over the children, advocates of the bill said.
“It has been found over a long period of time when these kinds of things occur, activity between a teacher and minor, that systems tend to protect the system, not the minor,” said Williams. “The system protects itself and starts providing excuses as to why it should happen and why we should just gloss it over individually as opposed to understanding that this is an individual human being that we are imprinting, unfortunately, in very tragic ways.”
Senate Bill 46, also known as the SESAME bill – named for the group, Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation – will make it illegal for such backroom deals to be made. It will also require schools to do stronger background tests and reference checks on anyone applying for a job in a Pennsylvania school.
Senate Bill 46 was referred to the Education Committee on Jan. 4.
Terri Miller, president of SESAME, said she believes that school administrators go to great lengths to protect these teachers.
“I believe they don’t want to have the cloud of shame over their school district. They don’t want to be held liable in certain situations so they would rather push this under the rug rather than protecting our children,” said Miller.
Williams introduced the bill again after it failed to pass last year.
“We are anticipating the passing of the bill. We’ve had more community support, and people coming forward in some tearful hearings in the Senate last year,” Meeks said. “Anyone who wants to protect children can show their support for this bill. Everyone – not just victims – can help pass this bill.”
State Rep. Mark Longietti of Hermitage, D-7th District, expects that the bill will “likely get some push from the Corbett administration.”
“Just from what I’ve read, this is an issue that needs to be addressed. The goal is to keep children safe,” Longietti said.
The long-term effects on victims of sexual misconduct by teachers and coaches in positions of authority over them are astounding, according to studies.
“More than three million students currently in grades K-12 have endured sexual touching or assault,” reports the American Association of University Women Educational Fund.
Officials from the educational fund also found that “16 percent of abusers went on to teach in another school – and these are only the cases in which school administrators are aware.”
Those cases came to light only because a victim or witness came forward.
SESAME says individuals can take action to protect children from sexual predators by:
• Calling police and the Pennsylvania Child Abuse Hotline at 800-932-0313 to report known or suspected abuse.
• Visiting www.sesamenet.org for more information and to sign a petition against sexual predators in schools.
• Asking their state representatives or senators to support the SESAME bill.