House approves bill cracking down on teacher sex abuse

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Teachers accused of sexually abusing students could face greater scrutiny when they try to switch schools under legislation given preliminary approval Tuesday by the House.

The measure would require prompt reporting of sex abuse allegations to the state, and mandate those records be retained -- even if they aren't proven true.

It also would require school districts to adopt policies on staff and student communications and how schools communicate with each other about former employees.

The legislation was sparked by an investigation by The Associated Press that found 87 licensed teachers in Missouri lost their credentials from 2001 through 2005 because of sexual misconduct. Some continued working in other school districts after allegations arose.

To make that less likely, the legislation protects whistle-blowers by barring lawsuits against school district employees who tell about sexual abuse allegations when a new district seeks to hire an employee from the old district.

When a school employee abuses a student, the legislation allows the victim and school district to sue if a previous school district had fired the perpetrator for sexual abuse and didn't disclose it.

Rep. Jane Cunningham said "passing the trash" or "mobile molesters" has been common as problem teachers move from one school district to school district.

Her legislation needs a second House vote to move to the Senate.

The measure would require superintendents to report allegations of teacher sex abuse to the state Department of Social Services within 24 hours. Records of those investigations would be kept -- even if no abuse is uncovered.

Critics said false accusations can ruin careers and that keeping the records could make the stigma even worse.

Rep. Joe Aull, a former school superintendent, said that if he were still hiring school district employees he would be more likely to hire one who doesn't have any sex abuse allegations -- even if the case had been investigated and found to be unsubstantiated.

"I'm going to pick the one with the clean record, and I don't think that's fair if they didn't do anything wrong," said Aull, D-Marshall.

Cunningham said teachers can choose to block access to records of unproven allegations by not signing the waiver, though she acknowledged doing so would likely generate suspicions.

"Just because it's unsubstantiated does not mean that it did not happen," she said.

Another key provision would ban teachers from allowing students or those whom they have taught to see their private Web pages protected by a password, such as those on Facebook and MySpace.

Educators could still let students look at their Web sites so long as they can be seen by anyone on the Internet. It would only apply to teacher profile pages that require a password or permission for others to view.

Cunningham said without that provision parents and administers can't check the appropriateness of Web sites that are password-protected.

The Missouri National Education Association has said the provision could impede on educators' free speech protections, block normal communication and even prevent useful educational programs accidentally.

An attorney for the teachers union said it might even make students less safe by exposing students whose classes use Facebook or MySpace to anyone using the Internet.

Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons also has filed legislation in response to concerns about teacher sex abuse. Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, who is running for attorney general, wants to limit liability for school districts and their employees to encourage districts to share more information about problem teachers.

Teacher misconduct bills are HB1314 and SB713.

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