Missouri lawmakers recently took a crucial step toward protecting vulnerable students from predatory school employees by strengthening the laws addressing sexual misconduct by school staff members. These new and enhanced statutes include intensifying background check requirements as well as holding school districts liable for failure to fully disclose substantiated claims of abuse against past employees. The provisions also include mandated sexual abuse awareness training for administrators and students.

Rep. Rocky Miller, R–Lake Ozark, originally introduced the measure as House Bill 739. That bill made its way through the House and Senate and was combined into House Bill 604 with other school-related measures, including new restrictions on school start dates. The statute was passed into law during the 2019 legislative session as part of the School Turnaround Act sponsored by Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Desloge.

A key component of the legislation aims to stop predators from hiding their misdeeds by relying on an atmosphere of secrecy among school administrators, students and witnesses. This culture of denial allows offenders to jump from one school to the next without consequence in a cycle commonly referred to as “passing the trash.” The need for stricter laws is supported by data from a 2010 Government Accountability Report showing that on average, an offending teacher can be transferred to three different schools before he or she is reported to the police; and one offender can have as many as 73 victims in his or her lifetime.

The revised statutes expressly prohibit school districts from offering employment to prospective hires without fully researching the individual’s complete work history with other school districts. In the past, districts were only required to contact the most recent employer. School districts will now be able to see any history of substantiated sexual misconduct through the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (unsubstantiated allegations will not be visible, however). Furthermore, the bill mandates full disclosure between districts regarding information about former employees when requested, specifically regarding confirmed violations of a board policy related to abusive behavior toward a student.

Certain sections of the revised statutes expand the definition of those responsible for the “care, custody and control of a child” to include school personnel, contractors and volunteers that establish relationships through school activity.

In addition, “screened volunteers” was added to the list of school employees that require criminal background checks. Any person who assists a school by providing uncompensated service and who may periodically be left alone with students qualifies as a volunteer. Screened volunteers “include, but are not limited to, persons who regularly assist in the office or library, mentor or tutor students, coach or supervise a school-sponsored activity before or after school, or chaperone students on an overnight trip.” Volunteers that are not screened shall not be left alone with a student or have access to student records.

New mandates within the law are designed to educate school board members on the signs of sexual abuse in children by increasing the number of training hours for new school board members to include training on the danger signals of potentially abusive relationships between children and adults. The training will also address methods for establishing an atmosphere of trust so that students feel comfortable discussing matters of abuse with adults. Established school board members will be required to undergo annual refresher training courses.

Additionally, beginning with the 2020-21 school year, school districts will be required to provide "trauma-informed, developmentally-appropriate sexual abuse training to students in all grades not lower than sixth grade." This part of the statutes requires school districts to provide students with the knowledge and tools to recognize sexual abuse, report an incident of sexual abuse; actions that a student who is a victim of sexual abuse can take to obtain assistance and intervention; and available resources for students affected by sexual abuse.

Considering the most recent statistics regarding school sexual abuse, the tightening of school hiring practices and sexual misconduct laws comes none too soon. According to research conducted by the group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation (SESAME), a national organization that works for the prevention of abuse by educators and other school employees, nearly 7 percent of children surveyed in 8th through 11th grade, reported having had physical sexual contact from an adult, most often a teacher or coach. The type of physical contact ranged from unwanted touching of their body to sexual intercourse. This number jumps to 10 percent when other types of sexual misconduct are included, such as being shown pornography, sexually explicit language or exhibitionism.

Closer to home, in little more than a year, the Lake of the Ozarks community saw three different school employees—a principal, a teacher, and a janitor—charged with varying crimes all related to sexual abuse or sexual misconduct with a student.

Most recently, on March 13, 2019, Joseph Devore was charged with two counts of Class E Felony Sexual Misconduct with a Child Under 15, after he allegedly exposed himself to a student in the bathroom of Oak Ridge Intermediate School, in the Camdenton R-III School District. The probable cause statement for his arrest said he was a suspect in previous multiple alleged incidents of sexual misconduct but had never been charged.

On April 18, 2018, authorities charged School of the Osage teacher Mark Edwards with statutory sodomy of a person less than 14 years old and sexual contact with a student, in the case of the girl on the school bus. Then, on May 7, an additional charge of third-degree child molestation was leveled against Edwards pertaining to the alleged assault of a second female School of the Osage student under the age of 14.

In February of 2018, Joseph Perry Rice IV, K-12 Principal at Climax Springs R-IV school district, was accused of soliciting sex and nude photos from a former student in the Miller County R-III School District.

If you have been victimized by a school employee or you have any information regarding abuse by a school staff member, contact your local law enforcement agency and report the abuse to the Missouri Division of Social Services Hotline at 1-800-392-3738.

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