A weekend interview with ...
... U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam. The Polk County Republican spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his bill to create a registry of educators who are convicted of committing an act of sexual misconduct against a student. The issue gained national attention lately after the Associated Press ran a three-part series last month.
What brought this issue to your attention first?
There had been a series of reports based out of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that had documented the problems going on in Florida school districts. Some of those problems included an incident in Polk County. And it became very clear that the existing laws were inadequate to prevent the widespread practice of school administrators transferring problem teachers to avoid publicity, which allowed that problem teacher to continue to have contact with children. I felt it was important that if you have a potential sexual predator involved with children that there should be an obligation to report that, to database that information, and prevent licensed educators from being able to avoid scrutiny by being able to move from school district to school district or state to state.
I've heard that called passing the trash, and it's something we've heard about for a number of years. Why do you think it's coming to lawmakers' attention now?
Whether it's real or perceived, there appears to be a greater number of incidents. Certainly a high number of high profile incidents. I think there's a greater awareness of the long-term damage done to a student who is involved in a sexual relationship with an authority figure who is substantially older. There's a growing awareness of the nonphysical sexual abuse that takes place with comments and inappropriate references that perhaps in the past would have been dismissed.
Tell me about how your bill would specifically address these issues.
First and foremost, today there is no uniform system in place that requires the reporting of sexual misconduct. The bill would create that. Currently the investigations are often done by individuals who have no experience or expertise. This would change that. In many cases today, even when educators are found guilty, they keep their teaching license and other school districts hire them without being aware of their problematic past. By databasing the information, all school districts in all states would be able to view the history of someone who is applying in their school. This sets a national system of standards for the oversight, the reporting and the investigation of sexual misconduct. It would create a 1-800 number for other students or parents to report inappropriate conduct, because many times the victim is not the one who is bringing this to the attention of the authorities. So all of those things combined, I think, are a tremendous step forward in preventing individuals who have a history of sexual misconduct from being able to find employment and interact with our children.
How would this go? Would it go backward in time or would it start from a set point? Because I know Florida started its database of teacher discipline cases, and it started with January 2007, and then they're slowly adding back cases.
Well, I would think as a matter of logistics and technology, you would have to start with the resources you have. Some states have better databases than others. So you would start with what you have and backfill as quickly as possible to have as complete and accurate a database as possible.
I see you have six cosponsors on the bill right now, and it's been referred to subcommittee. What do you see as the actual chance of this getting through to becoming a law?
Well, there continues to be publicity surrounding the problem that this legislation attempts to solve. So we're aggressively forwarding articles that relate to this issue to other offices in hopes of building momentum on a bipartisan basis to pass this bill. We're also working on the Senate side enlisting a sponsor there who can help us move the bill forward there at the same time as the House, so that it has a better chance of becoming law.
In the meantime, is there anything we can do ... to alert children to be more careful with adults they're supposed to trust?
I think parents need to have the conversation with their children about what's appropriate, what's not appropriate topics of discussion for teachers and coaches and librarians and bus drivers. I think it's important that school systems implement better training for their teachers, both new teachers and older teachers, to put them on alert about what the standards should be for appropriate conduct and appropriate language with their students. Shifting the culture is important. Some of these are very obvious offenses and some of them, like I said, we're only beginning to understand how damaging inappropriate comments and behavior are, even if it stops short of the more obvious cases of a high school teacher sleeping with a 14-year-old boy. It's not just those glaring examples that are the problem here. And parents and school administrators together, I think, can raise the awareness and prevent a lot of this.