Washington state legislators have passed a trio of bills designed to reduce the risk that students will be subjected to sexual misconduct by teachers, coaches, and other school employees.
Under the three bills, now awaiting the approval of Gov. Gary Locke, school officials would be required to conduct thorough background checks of potential employees, complete sexual-misconduct investigations in a timely manner, and attend regular training sessions on inappropriate behavior between adults and students.
|View the accompanying table, “Pending Legislation.”|
“This would go one step forward to keep those individuals from preying on other students,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the Democrat who sponsored the measure to expand background checks. “We’ve covered a lot of ground with this.”
The sexual misconduct of school employees and students is a topic that is gaining increased attention across the country. The draft of a federally financed report says that far too little research has been conducted into the problem’s prevalence, but presents evidence suggesting that millions of children are likely to be affected by it during their school careers. (“Sexual Abuse by Educators Is Scrutinized,” March 10, 2004.)
The issue received heightened scrutiny in Washington after a Seattle Times investigation into coaches who were hired after leaving previous jobs while under investigation for sexual misconduct with students.
Ms. Kohl-Welles said her bill failed to win serious consideration last year, but won unanimous approval in both the House and the Senate after the newspaper highlighted the issue in a series in December.
Under Ms. Kohl-Welles’ bill, school districts would be required to keep the records from investigations that produced evidence of employees’ sexual misconduct with students.
Any time an educator applied for a job in Washington state, the district would have to communicate with all districts where that person had worked and ask for results of any inquiries that substantiated improper conduct by the employee. Districts with records on file would be required to share them with potential employers.
The bill also would prohibit districts from entering into confidential agreements with school employees that barred the districts from releasing records related to sexual-misconduct cases.
But the bill would include protection for people falsely accused of improper conduct because districts wouldn’t be allowed to include unsubstantiated charges in personnel files, according to the leader of the Washington Education Association.
“There is a way to ensure that people’s careers and lives aren’t damaged by false allegations,” said Charles Hasse, the president of the 76,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association. The WEA backed Ms. Kohl-Welles’ bill and the others that the legislature approved this month.
The background checks would be a helpful way to prevent educators with histories of sexual misconduct from getting new jobs in the state, one national expert said. But the provisions couldn’t compel out-of-state school districts to share information about a potential employee’s past, he noted.
“It’s really positive,” said Robert J. Shoop, a professor of education law at Kansas State University in Manhattan, “but I’m not sure it would deal with any people coming from out of state.”
Another bill would require schools to complete investigations of alleged misconduct within a year. Now, districts usually halt an inquiry if the employee resigns in the middle of it, Ms. Kohl- Welles said.
“Sometimes, investigations would go on for years and then would be stopped if the individual let the [educator] certification lapse or moved away,” said Ms. Kohl-Welles, a law professor who has testified as an expert witness on behalf of students who accused school employees of sexual misconduct.
The third bill would mandate that school employees receive training about inappropriate sexual activity between adult employees and students and their responsibilities to report suspected misconduct.
All prospective educators would learn about the problem in their teacher-certification programs and then once every three years during their careers.
That would be a positive development, according to Mr. Shoop, but it could also be a missed opportunity. He said just telling people that they’re responsible for reporting suspicious behavior would be inadequate if it were not accompanied by specific examples of the behavior of adults who prey on students.
The bills all passed both chambers unanimously in the final days of the legislature’s session, which ended March 11. Gov. Locke, a Democrat, has not decided whether he will sign the sexual-misconduct bills, according to spokeswoman Kirsten Kendrick.