Ring the bell for school safety

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Roy Edward Bell was a major proponent of Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams's SESAME bill. (Jim Haberski, Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Communications office)

POOR ROY EDWARD BELL.

The 58-year-old Fayetteville, W.Va., man died suddenly Oct. 19, so he did not live to see Pennsylvania Senate Bill 46 leap one more hurdle three days later toward becoming law.

If passed, SB46 - dubbed the SESAME bill (as in "Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation") - could prevent school employees accused of sexual perversions from hurting kids the way a sicko teacher hurt Roy Bell's son, Jeremy.

That sicko, Edgar Friedrichs Jr., had been accused in 1972 of sexual improprieties with students while he taught in the Prospect Park, Delaware County, school district. Despite public allegations of the misconduct, nothing ever happened to Friedrichs.

Years later, he turned up in West Virginia, where the Bell family lived. Parents and school administrators were unaware of Friedrichs' past - thanks, in part, to glowing letters of recommendation from the Delco schools where his aberrant behavior had alarmed families.

This practice, by the way, happens all over the country, fueled by the desire of many school administrators for an accused teacher to quietly resign, saving face for the district. To coax suspected offenders out the door, administrators will write letters of recommendation. Continue a teacher's health benefits. Craft confidentiality agreements.

All of it allowing the teacher to find work in another district, where families and administrators are none the wiser - allowing a serial predator to re-offend.

The name of this practice: "Pass the Trash."

Churns the stomach, doesn't it?

Friedrichs was passed along in just such a way until he landed in West Virginia, where he met and became obsessed with 12-year-old Jeremy Bell. He was later convicted of drugging and killing the child in 1997 and of sexually assaulting two of Jeremy's friends.

The murder turned Roy Edward Bell upside down.

"Roy was a good man, a good father; Jeremy was his only son," says Bell's cousin, Elsie Deal. She describes how Jeremy's murder galvanized Bell - a quiet, unassuming "country man" - to push for laws that would keep monsters like Friedrich from ever offending again.

"He knew that if a law had existed in Pennsylvania" that would've required Friedrichs' records to follow him to his next job, "Jeremy would still be alive," she says.

That conviction led Bell to Harrisburg, where he lent his support to the SESAME bill.

It would require schools to find out whether a potential hire was ever subject to an investigation for sexual misconduct or abuse by the state's Child Protective Services. It would also require the district to learn whether an applicant had been disciplined, discharged, non-renewed or asked to resign from a job (or to surrender his or her teaching certificate) while an investigation or allegations were pending.

Introduced in 2011 by state Sen. Anthony Williams, the first SESAME bill died in committee in December 2012. Reintroduced in January, it passed unanimously in the Senate in June. And on Oct. 22, it sailed through the state House Education Committee.

Williams' wildest hope is that the bill, which has strong bipartisan support, will pass in the House before Thanksgiving and be signed by the governor before year's end - a holiday gift for Pennsylvania's schoolchildren.

"I feel like an expectant father, waiting for this to happen," says Williams. "We've had to look at the language, to make sure it doesn't violate anyone's due process and that innocent people are protected against false claims. The bill takes all of it into account. I feel very optimistic."

Williams was shocked by news of Roy Edward Bell's death (Elsie Deal says the cause was a heart attack). He'd met with Bell during the two years that the SESAME bill has been working its way around Harrisburg and was impressed by his character.

"The way his son died, he could've lived a life of bitterness or revenge. But he didn't," says Williams. "He just wanted to make sure that SESAME would protect children the way he'd hoped his own son would've been protected," says Williams. "It was humbling to be in his presence."

Rest in peace, Mr. Bell. May the SESAME bill inspired by your son's violated innocence due justice to his memory.

 


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