This week on PRI’s “Next Round” podcast, I sit down with Senator Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga. Among the topics that we discussed was his legislation to ensure safer schools for all students (Senate Bill 709), also known as the Sexual Abuse-Free Education (SAFE) Act.
Right now, there’s a growing problem of teachers being investigated for sexual abuse in the classroom quietly resigning and then moving on to another school. Unfortunately, prospective employers won’t know about an investigation unless criminal charges are filed. Morrell’s bill would ensure that prospective employers know this information.
An example of how the SAFE Act would have made a difference is the case of Robert Keith Bryan. According to the Desert Sun, he worked in 6 Coachella Valley schools over a 34-year career. In 2012, he was “charged with 17 felony and misdemeanor counts of committing lewd and lascivious acts with minors,” later pleading guilty to four felony and four misdemeanor counts – according to local TV station KESQ. He is currently serving a nine-year prison term.
The Desert Sun reported that when Bryan resigned from the Coachella Valley School District after a child molestation allegation, “the district agreed not to tell anyone about the allegations, then recommended him to other school districts, including Desert Sands, where he got a job.” Desert Sands “became aware of the prior allegation at Coachella Valley Unified (after a Riverside County Sheriff’s Department investigation of 10 molestation allegations in 1992), but left Bryan in the classroom anyway.”
The schools would have known – and wouldn’t have been able to ignore these investigations – had the SAFE Act been on the books. Similar legislation has been enacted in Connecticut, Nevada, and New Jersey.
Morell’s bill should be a slam-dunk for passage, but of course it isn’t. As he said on the podcast, a prior bill failed last year because of the interference of teacher’s unions. “The union’s pretty big . . . the unions shut my bill down and the Dems . . . turned it down. And I think they were afraid of the unions.”
But this is nothing new. In 2012, my boss, then-Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway, led the Assembly GOP in proposing legislation responding to the scandal at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles, where a third grade teacher was ultimately charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
That case exposed just how difficult and expensive it can be for local school districts to remove predators from the classrooms. Working closely with then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Assembly GOP bill package would have eliminated the hurdles in documenting and investigating teacher misconduct cases, and ended unnecessary delays for dismissal. Villaraigosa wrote at the time that it was “morally imperative that we address the obstacles that make it difficult to fire teachers who commit crimes.”
Unfortunately, that bill met the same fate as Morrell’s. While it was approved by the Assembly Education Committee after being substantially amended, teacher union bosses asked lawmakers to defeat it in the Assembly Appropriations Committee and they did. They also followed the CTA’s demands in blocking an alternative proposal pushed by then-Sen. Alex Padilla. Ultimately, it took the threat of a ballot measure to finally force a compromise that was enacted into law in 2014.
Despite last year’s experience, Morrell remains hopeful. “I’ve had some other bills in the past years just like this, where you know it’s a good bill, it’s going to protect our students. And the first year it didn’t go, the second year it almost went, and then the third year it went . . . I’m confident this bill will eventually go . . . we have to protect our kids first.”
For the safety of California’s students, let’s hope he’s right.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s communications director.