Missouri lawmakers approve bill changing school sex abuse laws

Thursday, May 12, 2011 | 4:31 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to legislation that seeks to thwart teachers who have sexually abused students from transferring to other schools where administrators, parents and students might not be aware of their background.

The bill would require districts that fire teachers in abuse cases verified by the state to disclose the information to other districts that might be considering hiring such teachers. The bill also would forbid teachers from communicating over the Internet with current or former students in ways that aren't accessible to district administrators and the students' parents.

The legislation passed the House 154-0 Thursday and now goes to Gov. Jay Nixon. The Senate passed the bill last month without any dissent.

Missouri law already forbids sexual contact between teachers and students on school grounds, regardless of whether the student is older than the age of consent. The legislation 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.

Bill sponsor Sen. Jane Cunningham had introduced similar legislation for several years 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. The AP found that some teachers who were determined 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.

The State Board of Education is responsible for determining whether to revoke teachers' licenses, a process that sometimes can take a while.

"In the past we had this problem of schools passing the trash; now we're holding school district liable if they choose not tell," said Cunningham, R-Chesterfield. "It is such a big problem."

Under the legislation passed Thursday, school districts that fail to disclose information about proven allegations of sexual abuse committed by a former teacher can be found partially liable in court for sexual abuse the teacher commits in his or her new district. Disclosure about previous offenses would have to be made when districts call to verify references.

Mike Wood, a lobbyist for the Missouri State Teachers Association, said the organization supports the legislation because it requires the state to substantiate an allegation of sexual abuse before the allegation is reported to a teacher's future employers.

The union opposed versions of legislation that failed in previous years because they would have allowed reporting of all allegations, even those that are unsubstantiated, in essence requiring teachers to disprove abuse allegations to get another job, he said.

"The accused were guilty until proven innocent," Wood said. "Now the students are protected, and the teachers are also protected from the outcome of a false allegation."

Under the legislation, 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.

Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards' Association, said that protection is important for school districts. He said some school officials had avoided passing along information about allegations — either substantiated or unsubstantiated — because of legal concerns.

"They'll feel more reassured about reporting that information without the possibility of a lawsuit," he said. "Although rare, any case of abuse is one too many."

Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield, a former school teacher and administrator, said that the legislation would help curb abuse of students while protecting teachers from punishment based on false allegations.

"We have vetted this over and over," she said. "It's important that children are safe when they go to school."

The legislation passed Thursday would also 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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