State lawmakers appear poised to vote on a sweeping bill they say will protect Illinois students from sexual abuse and assault at school following nearly a year of negotiations on the issue.
The strongest provisions aim to protect students from repeated interrogations by school officials when they report sexual abuse at school, allow them to avoid testifying in person against their alleged abusers at disciplinary hearings and permit school districts to warn prospective employers about educators’ past misconduct.
The bill dials back more robust proposals following opposition by powerful teacher unions and a civil liberties group. For example, lawmakers dropped a provision that would make it a crime for school employees to have sexual contact with a student regardless of the student’s age.
“I think it’s a very strong approach to handle kids who have been abused. The question now is can we stop it?” House Assistant Majority Leader Fred Crespo, D-Streamwood, told the Tribune. He said he believes the measure that puts sensitive interviews of sexually abused children in the hands of Children’s Advocacy Centers will make a significant impact on Illinois students.
The legislation, which could be voted on this week, comes after lawmakers last June heard tearful testimony from Chicago students about their abuse by teachers and vowed to take action.
Since then, about a dozen student protection bills have been in the mix, and the single bill that has emerged addresses several of the failures highlighted in “Betrayed,” a Chicago Tribune investigation that uncovered 523 times when police investigated a case of sexual assault or abuse of a child inside a Chicago public school in the last decade. It exposed child protection failures that extended from the city’s neighborhood schools to the district’s downtown offices. A lack of oversight in Springfield also contributed to those failings, which affect all Illinois public school students.
The investigation found that weak background checks by CPS had exposed students to employees with criminal convictions and arrests for sex crimes against children. The pending bill would require school districts statewide to check employee names against sex offender and violent offender registries every five years, in addition to full background checks when they’re hired. It does not require new fingerprint-based background checks of current employees. Such a requirement could help districts discover employees who are arrested or convicted of crimes after being hired even if they aren’t registered as sexual or violent offenders.
The bill, however, does empower the Illinois State Board of Education to immediately suspend the license of any educator charged with a sex crime or Class X felony instead of waiting for a conviction as is currently the law.
In addition, the bill allows districts to fire employees who negligently or willfully fail to report suspected abuse of a student to child welfare authorities, but specifies that the employee must have personally witnessed the abuse to be considered negligent.
And while the legislation does not directly increase public access to the disciplinary records of school employees in sexual misconduct cases, it does offer more leeway to share information about workers with other school districts.
Many states require superintendents to disclose an educator’s past misconduct to prospective employers regardless of when it happened. Those laws are commonly referred to as “pass the trash” measures because they’re meant to prevent problem educators from slipping quietly to the next district after meeting trouble in the last one. Illinois law currently prohibits school districts from disclosing employee records after four years have passed, including ones that show sexual misconduct with students.
The pending bill changes the law to specify that the four-year look-back window does not apply to districts that are sharing information about employee misconduct to potential employers.
CPS officials lauded the provisions last week but said they still hope for additional, stronger student protection measures.
“The district has strongly advocated for legislation that will protect students in Chicago and beyond by strengthening accountability, transparency and intergovernmental processes. We are grateful to our representatives in Springfield for spearheading this work and we are hopeful that comprehensive legislation will become law in the near future,” the district said in a statement.
In response to the Tribune’s findings last summer, Chicago school officials swiftly created new offices to investigate sexual misconduct by employees and students, hired a prominent law firm to assess its child protection weaknesses, passed new anti-grooming and digital communications policies, and began removing school employees immediately when an investigation is launched. The district also conducted fresh background checks on all of its 44,000 workers; hundreds were fired, barred from schools or left their jobs.
But while change came quickly in the district, it’s been slower to come at the Capitol. In fact, some changes that were viewed as critical to preventing abuse of all Illinois students have been clipped from the recent proposals.
Facing opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, legislators dropped a provision that would make it a crime for school employees to have sexual contact with a student regardless of the student’s age. Instead, sex with a student will remain legal in Illinois if the student is older than 17 and no force is involved; in many other states, having sex with a student is a crime regardless of age because the teacher has power over the student’s future and is in a position of trust.
“We were concerned about criminalizing behavior that was otherwise lawful between two adults, carrying with it a lifetime sex offender registry, when there were other possible penalties, including the teacher losing his or her job or license,” said ACLU of Illinois spokesman Ed Yohnka.
CPS said last week it wants “a provision to outlaw relationships between students and teachers regardless of age.” Teacher-student relationships already are against school board policy, but CPS said it welcomes “the strengthened ramifications provided by a state law.”
The pending bill in Springfield also doesn’t give the public more access to information about educator misconduct. In Illinois, even if an educator was disciplined by the state for misconduct, the law prohibits the State Board of Education from releasing records related to their misdeeds unless the educator fought license sanctions in a hearing.
Powerful teacher union organizations opposed an earlier package of student sex abuse bills, though they have not spoken out publicly against the current bill. The Illinois Federation of Teachers noted in a March update to its members that the group as well as the affiliated Chicago Teachers Union testified before a House committee about educator misconduct measures and “urged the legislature to enhance student safety while maintaining due process rights.”
IFT spokeswoman Aviva Bowen said in an email that “the top priority of our teachers and school staff is student safety and well-being, and the bill includes a lot of protections to that end.” She added that the labor group is working to include more training but wants legislation that “maintains due process as well.”
CTU spokeswoman Christine Geovanis said the union did not raise objections to the latest version of the bill and considers student safety a priority. “We all recognize that this is a huge challenge and one we must meet,” she said.
Sources told the Tribune that advocates for unions and school administrators were concerned about false accusations of abuse following school employees.
The IFT is among the most powerful special interest groups at the Capitol because its campaign fund provides political contributions and volunteers in state House and Senate races.
Beyond that, the pending bill does not include a provision to require the state board to collect data about sexual abuse of students in schools, though districts have to report the rare instances in which a student sexually assaults a school employee.
A dozen bills proposed last year would have lifted the intense secrecy around disciplined teachers and made it a crime for a school employee to have sexual contact with a student regardless of age, among other fixes. The widest-ranging of those proposals — a bill co-authored by Barrington Hills Republican Rep. David McSweeney and Villa Park Democratic Sen. Thomas Cullerton — enjoyed broad bipartisan support. But none of those bills made it to a floor vote last year as talks continued.
Then in April, Democratic leaders consolidated various proposals into a new bill sponsored by Senate Assistant Majority Leader Iris Y. Martinez, D-Chicago.
The latest version of the bill cleared a House committee on Monday, but still has to be approved by the full House and Senate to send it to the governor’s desk. Time is running out as lawmakers are scheduled to finish the spring session on Friday.
John Patterson, spokesman for Senate President John Cullerton, expressed cautious optimism that the bill might pass even as lawmakers debate the session’s most pressing priorities including Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposals on tax increases, cannabis legalization and a massive infrastructure plan. “They are hopeful things are coming together,” Patterson said. “It is doable.”
A Pritzker spokeswoman said the governor has been monitoring the bill’s progress and believes all students should have access to a “safe environment” at school.
Two of the young women whose cases were featured in the Tribune series testified last year to the legislature’s joint committee on elementary and secondary education. As they told their stories, some legislators shook their heads in disbelief and dabbed at tears.
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May 28, 2019 at 05:33AM