February 12, 2015

Let’s protect our children in schools | Charleston Daily Mail

In today’s partisan world of politics, many might think that we now live in a divided America. That’s simply not true.

Americans form their priorities based on their values – and making sure our kids remain safe in every single school across the country has always been at the top of that list.

It is important to acknowledge that the vast majority our teachers, principals, and school employees are dedicated professionals and strong role models, but we must take action against that small minority who are sexual predators and directly interact with our kids in schools across the country.

In 2014 alone, 459 teachers and school employees across America were arrested for sexual misconduct, and since the start of this year, 40 more have been arrested.

These numbers are staggering. Infuriating. These numbers mean that more than one child is being sexually assaulted every day by a trusted adult in the school system. And that only includes those who have been caught and detained.

While this is not only a problem in education, we must be particularly concerned about school employees because of the trust we place in them to care for our children.

Just imagine how many predators we could have prevented from harming our students if we chose to do something about this unacceptable offense. Just imagine how many children’s lives could have been different if we chose to take action, including preventing the outcome of the rape and death of our very own West Virginia student, Jeremy Bell.

Jeremy was a fifth grade student from Fayette County, West Virginia who was on an overnight fishing trip with his elementary school principal when he mysteriously died from a head injury in 1997.

Nearly eight years later, investigators discovered that Jeremy was raped and murdered by none other than Edgar Friedrichs Jr., Jeremy’s principal and supervisor on the trip.

Thankfully, Mr. Friedrichs is now serving a life sentence in connection with Jeremy’s death.

And although Jeremy’s death is in-and-of-itself disturbing, Mr. Friedrichs’ past proves to be even more troubling.

Prior to working as Fayette County’s principal, Mr. Friedrichs was previously dismissed by a school in Delaware County, Pa., on suspicion of sexual misconduct.

That school then helped him land a new teaching position in West Virginia.

He taught for 26 years in West Virginia – 26 years – before he was finally dismissed in 2001 when he was indicted for sexually abusing four boys.

Jeremy’s disturbing fate coupled with Mr. Friedrich’s story is heartbreaking and simply unacceptable.

As a parent, as a grandparent and as a representative of the great state of West Virginia – inaction is not an option.

That is why Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and I are introducing legislation – The Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predator Act – that would require all employees who work with our students pass a background check to make sure they have no criminal records or an abusive history. These employees include everyone from principals, teachers and secretaries, to bus drivers, cafeteria workers and janitors.

There are more than four million teachers and school staff employed by our public school districts across the United States. There are also millions of additional workers who have direct access to students. And yet, there is no national background check policy in place for the people who work every day directly with our kids.

Even worse, not all states require checks of child abuse and neglect registries or sex-offender registry checks. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office discovered that five states don’t require background checks at all for applicants seeking employment at our schools.

In addition, not all states use both state and federal sources of criminal data like a state law enforcement database or the FBI’s Interstate Identification Index. Our current system allows offenders to slip through the cracks.

This bill would simply establish uniform requirements for existing and prospective employees to undergo mandatory background checks, including state criminal registries, state child-abuse and neglect registries, an FBI fingerprint check, and a check of the National Sex Offender Registry.

Since my tenure as governor, I have asked that all West Virginians commit to keeping five promises to our children. Every child should have a caring adult in his or her life. Every child should have a healthy start to life.

Every child should have a marketable skill to support future success. Every child should be taught to be a caring adult and be given an opportunity to serve in the local community. And finally, at the heart of this piece of legislation, every child deserves to have at least one place where they feel safe and no harm can enter.

For many of our kids these days, that place is at school. With this legislation, this is one promise we can keep.

If we can even make the smallest difference in changing the outcomes of students’ lives like Jeremy Bell, then we must act.