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Columns : The Federal Voice

Does Child Safety Come First?

Right-thinking Americans want background investigations of all school employees, but two senators are blocking legislation that would mandate them.

November 26, 2014  |  by Jon Adler

When it comes to protecting our children at school, you'd rationally expect all hands in the fight. Unfortunately, some Washington, D.C., legislators have shamefully opted to sit on their hands and disrupt noble efforts to improve safeguards for our children.

After Sen. Pat Toomey (R—Pa.) introduced the Protecting Students from Sexual And Violent Predators Act (S. 1596), which calls for mandatory background checks for elementary school personnel, there was a rational expectation the bill would fly through the Senate. It didn't. Alternatively, the House version of the bill that was introduced by Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R—Pa.) did pass with a unanimous vote. So why the stall-out in the Senate?

In the Senate, the bill was assigned to the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. This committee is chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin (D—Iowa) and Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R—Tenn.). Published reports indicate that both have expressed objections to the bill and want to hold hearings. This effectively puts the brakes on the bill and keeps it parked in committee. Had the bill gone to the floor for a vote, it's expected it would have passed easily. Unfortunately, Harkin seems concerned that the bill may deny the rights of those accused of felonies, and Alexander opposes a federal mandate.

Why do we need this bill beyond the obvious important protections it would bring with mandatory background checks? Currently, five states do not perform any background checks on school employees or contractors. Twelve states don't perform a background check on contracted school personnel such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers. More than half the states do not conduct periodic background checks, but only do so at the initial hiring.

Such hiring practices present a safety problem for our children and exacerbate what's been described as "passing the trash." This refers to incidents where a child predator is let go from one school and secures employment in another, either in the same state or a different one. This is unacceptable.

As reported by Sen. Toomey's office, more than 325 teachers and school employees have been arrested for sexual misconduct against children this year. In a tragic landmark case, a school principal was ultimately convicted of murdering a child named Jeremy Bell in West Virginia. The principal had been a teacher in Pennsylvania where he was let go for alleged inappropriate conduct with minors. The charges were later substantiated as more victims reported physical abuses committed by the teacher. In spite of the allegations, the school sent a favorable recommendation to West Virginia when he applied for the principal position. If background checks had been mandated, Bell would be alive today.

All law enforcement officers are subjected to background checks and random drug testing. We accept this because we respect the formidable responsibility entrusted to us. Why would any school employee or contractor object to a criminal history query or to submitting his or her fingerprints for a check in the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS)? This is what the bill requires, in addition to searching the National Sex Offender Registry and state-based child abuse and neglect databases. To be fair, the bill also calls for an appeal process that allows the accused to challenge the allegations and present evidence to refute them.

The bill also disqualifies applicants convicted of violent crimes. Specifically, a felony conviction for the following offenses would be disqualifying: homicide; child abuse/neglect; crimes against children including pornography; spousal abuse; rape or sexual assault; arson; and physical assault, battery, or a drug-related offense that occurred within the previous five years of the application date. Does either Sen. Harkin or Sen. Alexander consider these good character traits for school employees?

On Sept. 9, I was honored to speak at a press conference on this critical child safety issue whose theme resonated with me as loudly as our law enforcement mantra of Officer Safety First; Child Safety Comes First.

As the F.L.E.O.A. national president, I represent law enforcement officers from agencies that actively pursue child predators outside of schools. None of their combat and investigative skill-sets can be used to protect our children if certain legislators consent to handing school keys to child predators. Our children's safety must trump bad politics.

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