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December 22, 2014

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Senate should act now to stop sexual predators in our schools

I still remember the day I learned there was a sexual predator at the high school in my small town of Pahrump — the high school my girls would eventually attend. I assumed that it was just a matter of a phone call or two, and the teacher would be fired. Instead it took 13 years to find justice for the 60 former students who came forward, including six girls who were raped. To this day, I wonder how many of those children could have been spared had someone acted sooner.

I have continued fighting to protect children from sexual predators in the classroom. Along the way, I have seen some harrowing cases: A teacher’s aide sexually assaulted a mentally disabled boy in his care. A girls’ basketball coach molested a 12-year-old girl until she graduated from high school. One teacher after another was caught with images of child pornography on their computers — pornography involving children as young as 1. Already this year, 122 educators have been arrested across the country for sexual misconduct with children. That is more than one per day.

In my fight, I have also met some dedicated allies. One of those allies is Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who has introduced the Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act.

Under Toomey’s bill, any state education agency that receives federal funds must conduct background checks on all school employees and contractors — new hires and existing workers — who have unsupervised access to children. Five states do not mandate background checks for school employees at all, and 12 states do not require background checks for contractors who work at schools. Toomey’s bill requires that these checks be repeated regularly, to prevent any predator from slipping through the cracks.

Toomey’s bill also requires that states perform the most thorough criminal background checks, reviewing two state and two federal databases. A school may not hire a person if he or she has committed certain crimes, including any violent or sexual crime against a child. And, Toomey’s bill bans the horrifying practice of a school letting a child predator quietly resign and move along to a new school, a practice so common it has its own moniker — “passing the trash.” Toomey’s bill is simple common sense. Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an identical version unanimously. The U.S. Senate has not yet voted on the bill.

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid has the power to bring this important legislation up for a vote. I hope Reid will do so and do so now. I have seen firsthand the terrible effects of delay, the horrible stories of abuse and childhoods lost. So has Reid. Nevada has seen too many educators arrested for child sexual abuse, including educators who had been accused of sexual offenses in other states. Recently, a Clark County kindergarten teacher was arrested on accusations of kidnapping a 16-year-old girl and infecting her with a sexually transmitted disease. That teacher had previously resigned from the Los Angeles Unified District amid sexual misconduct allegations.

No child should have to experience sexual abuse. That is why, as a child advocate and as a mother and grandmother, I implore Reid and the other members of the Senate to act now and pass Toomey’s Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act.

Terri Miller is the president of S.E.S.A.M.E., Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct, & Exploitation, a leading national voice for the prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment of students by teachers and other school staffers.

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