Toomey, Manchin team on bill that targets job-jumping predators
WASHINGTON — U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin want to make sure no school district can “pass the trash” again.
The Pennsylvania Republican and West Virginia Democrat will reintroduce in the Senate on Thursday the Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act, a bill intended to keep pedophiles out of schools and from moving undetected from state to state, a practice known as “passing the trash.”
The bill would require elementary and high schools that receive federal funding to conduct background checks on not only teachers but school administrators, coaches, custodians, bus drivers and others with unsupervised access to children.
“Sen. Manchin and I share a determination to get this done. It’s long overdue,” said Toomey. He said school officials sometimes know an employee committed sexual abuse and fail to report it, then help the predator to “be quietly reassigned.”
Most states, including Pennsylvania, require criminal background checks on all school employees. Five states exempt some employees, such as bus drivers or sports coaches, and in 12 states such checks are not mandatory for private contractors who may have contact with children, according to the Government Accountability Office.
A similar bill passed the House unanimously last year but stalled in the Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pensions Committee, Toomey and Manchin told the Tribune-Review during a Capitol Hill interview.
A case spanning both states was the catalyst for their involvement, Manchin said.
Jeremy Bell, 12, was raped and murdered in West Virginia in 1997 by Edgar Friedrichs Jr., who is serving a life prison sentence. A Delaware County, Pa., school district had dismissed Friedrichs for molesting several children, Manchin said.
“But instead of (taking) any action to stop the predator, the district recommended and helped him get a new job in my home state,” he said.
That case “is as horrific as it gets,” Toomey said. “… They just wanted (Friedrichs) to become someone else’s problem.”
Still, the legislation is not without its critics.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., held the bill in committee during the last session, along with former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, arguing it would be a mandate that undermines local decision-making in education. Alexander warned against allowing the Senate “to constitute ourselves as a national school board.”
The American Federation of Teachers supports the legislation to protect children from wrongdoing, but wants to protect teachers from false allegations, said its president Randi Weingarten. The union represents more than 1 million educators, paraprofessionals and school-related personnel nationwide.
Toomey acknowledged that some Republicans in the Senate do not think the government should impose standards on school districts.
“My response is, the enforcement mechanism in schools in states that refuse to comply with the legislation would forgo some federal money,” Toomey said. “We can’t force them to do this, and we don’t attempt to force them to do it. But we do create an incentive to do this, and I think that is completely responsible.”
Manchin said Alexander is “a true champion of education,” but the modern world requires a way to detect pedophiles who move across state lines for school jobs.
“We are hoping the senator would take another look at that,” Manchin said. “Give us the vote — just give us a vote and this will pass.”
Toomey said he believes President Obama would sign the bill if it passes both chambers. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at [email protected].