The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

June 11, 2013

Bill targets schools’ handling of accused teachers

John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG — A bill that passed the Senate unanimously would bar school districts from entering into secret deals with disgraced teachers to allow those educators to quietly resign and leave the district.

The bill also creates a formal two-step process that schools would use to determine if a teacher left another school under a cloud of suspicion. If the bill becomes law, schools will use a standard form to report that a teacher left, voluntarily or involuntarily, after an allegation of misconduct. Then, if another district determined it was considering hiring a teacher, a former employer would be required to provide all documents related to prior allegations of misconduct with students.

Concerns about the way school districts handle allegations against teachers has gained increased scrutiny due to repeated revelations of conspiracies of silence in schools.

In January, West Middlesex High School art teacher Robert Palko tendered his resignation, which the school board accepted without explanation. Officials at the Mercer County school offered no explanation for the teacher’s departure, but called his resignation “irrevocable.” In April, Palko was charged with unlawful contact with a minor, due to allegations that he had exchanged improper texts with a girl and touched her inappropriately.

Brother Stephen Baker, a Franciscan friar, killed himself in January after being accused of sexually abusing students at John F. Kennedy High School in Warren, Ohio, in the late ’80s and early ’90s and at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown.

The measures proposed in the bill authored by Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, are common-sense practices that all school districts should already be using, said Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Board Association.

But while the purpose of the bill is to protect children, the groups representing school boards and teachers both refused to back the bill until language was added to protect the interests of their members, too.

Even with the legislation changed to protect teachers who are wrongly accused, the teachers union has stopped short of fully backing the bill, said Wythe Keever, PSEA spokesman. Keever described the union’s position on the bill as “neutral.”

The bill now clarifies that districts need not disclose if a teacher was subjected to allegations that were found to be untrue.

The Pennsylvania School Board Association endorsed the bill. A spokesman for the PSBA, Steve Robinson, said the current version makes it clear that districts cannot be sued for disclosing to other school administrators that a former employee had been the subject of misconduct allegations.

In a recent Pennsylvania case, a suburban Philadelphia teacher sued after he was dismissed for allegedly sharing inappropriate texts with a student.

But in that case, the teacher’s lawsuit complains that he was targeted because he was black, not that the district defamed him.

Neither the school board association nor the PSEA could point to a case in which a district was sued by a former teacher over disclosure of alleged misconduct.

But that doesn’t mean that school officials wouldn’t be tempted to seek coverage to prevent a potential lawsuit, Robinson said. The Senate bill corrects that, Robinson said.

The Senate vote was “a short victory for the countless families in Pennsylvania who have suffered tragedy due to the heinous practice known as ‘passing the trash,’ as well as for the vast majority of educators and school staff devoted to teaching and protecting our children,” Williams said after the Senate passed the bill. “Our ultimate victory will come when this bill emerges from the state House and lands on the governor’s desk. We cannot let momentum end now.”


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