Senate passes changes to school sex abuse laws

School districts would have to inform the state within 24 hours when a teacher is accused of sexual misconduct involving a student and the state would oversee investigations of such claims under a measure the state Senate unanimously approved Thursday.

The bill, which next goes to the House, would also require districts that fire teachers in verified abuse cases to disclose the information to other districts that might be considering hiring such teachers. And teachers would be forbidden from communicating over the Internet with current or former students in ways that aren’t accessible to district administrators and the students’ parents.

“This bill provides a solution to the sexual misconduct problem in our schools and it ensures our families that their schools will be safer,” Sen. Jane Cunningham, who introduced the measure, said before Thursday’s vote. The legislation is backed by the state teachers union and the Missouri School Boards’ Association, which represents districts.

Missouri law forbids sexual contact between teachers and students on school grounds, regardless of whether the student older than the age of consent. The Senate bill focuses on whether such abuse is reported to the state and, if it is found to have happened, to other schools where the teacher could work.

Cunningham introduced the bill after a 2007 Associated Press investigation found that 87 licensed Missouri teachers lost their credentials between 2001 and 2005 because of sexual misconduct involving students. Teachers licenses are taken away by the State Board of Education, and the process takes a long time. The AP found that some teachers found to have engaged in sexual misconduct with students landed teaching jobs elsewhere in the state because the district that fired them didn’t pass on the information to the teachers’ new employers.

Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards’ Association, said some districts didn’t pass along the information out of fear that they would be sued by a teacher who was terminated by his or her new district based on that information.

Under the legislation passed Thursday, districts could not be held liable if one of their teachers is found to have engaged in sexual misconduct with a student, as long as the district told the state about the allegation within 24 hours of learning about it. Districts that fail to convey such information could be found partially liable for sexual abuse the teacher commits in his or her new district.

“There’s really no other reason not to pass that along to other districts,” Ghan said. “Nobody wants to see someone who’s been involved with this kind of misconduct go to work anywhere in the state.”

Mike Wood, a lobbyist for the Missouri State Teachers Association, said the teachers union supports the current legislation because teachers would be presumed innocent until proven guilty based on evidence.

The union opposed previous failed legislation because it would have required teachers to disprove abuse allegations, he said.

“That was a big hurdle for us to get over in supporting the bill,” he said.

The legislation passed Thursday would also require that schools report allegations of child abuse to the state within 24 hours. Those allegations would have to be investigated by the state, not by the schools.

It also would create a task force aimed at preventing child sex abuse. That task force, made up of lawmakers and state child welfare officials, would have to produce a report on ways to prevent such abuse by January 2013.

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