By John Finnerty
Betty Ferguson’s crusade started in August 1975 when her 16-year-old daughter Debbie disappeared.
Debbie’s body turned up in Cussewago Creek near the Hayfield-Vernon Township border in Crawford County four days later. Police were stumped, Ferguson said Tuesday. Then one day a private investigator suggested he might be able to help. “Who was Debbie’s favorite teacher?” he asked.
“Ray Payne,” Ferguson replied.
The private investigator’s hunch proved correct and eventually Debbie’s former English teacher at Strong Vincent High School in Erie pleaded guilty to killing the girl.
Ferguson devoted her life to helping other victims of crime, an effort that helped her find some peace, she said. Tuesday, she made the trek from northwest Pennsylvania to Harrisburg to stand up for legislation she hopes will save other parents from the nightmare she endured.
Ferguson stood alongside other advocates and lawmakers to lobby for bills intended to ensure that schools disclose when teachers resign amidst allegations of sexual misconduct.
Ferguson later learned that Payne should never have had access to her daughter.
“No one knows how big this is,” she said. “My daughter was murdered, strangled, sodomized and raped, all by a person she trusted. Strong Vincent put a pedophile in the classroom and because of that, Debbie is dead.”
Payne had been employed in a neighboring school district and resigned amidst allegations of misconduct. Erie school officials said they didn’t know that Payne was acting inappropriately with students. In a civil trial, Ferguson’s attorney argued that they should have recognized that Payne was crossing lines. Ferguson was awarded more than $1 million.
But Sen. Anthony Williams said the state needs to do a better job preventing predators from using teaching jobs to get victims.
Williams authored a bill intended to eliminate the shadowy practice of “passing the trash,” allowing teachers to resign and take jobs elsewhere rather than sort out whether allegations are valid.
Diane Moyer, legal director for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, said that the typical predator teacher has worked in three different schools before getting caught.
Williams’ legislation would require that teachers disclose if they have been the focus of an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct at another school. That requirement does not take effect if the investigation found that the allegations were false. The bill also requires that school districts must contact schools that have previously employed a prospective teacher. The measure also bars districts from entering into confidential agreements in which teachers quit rather than face allegations of misconduct.
Williams’ bill would also provide that administrators who decline to inform another district about allegations centered on a former employee would face civil penalties. And, as Ferguson’s case demonstrates, school officials caught shielding predators can be hit with civil lawsuits, said Chester Kent, a former educator who has been a frequent expert witness in sex abuse cases.
Williams’ bill pairs with a similar measure by Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster County. Smucker’s bill adds language that requires private school teachers to be entered in the same educator licensing system as public school teachers. One of the more notorious cases of alleged sexual misconduct by a teacher involved a Franciscan friar accused of molesting students in the 1980s and 1990s at a Catholic school in Ohio and at Bishop McCort High School in Somerset County. Brother Stephen Baker committed suicide in January. He had been at Bishop McCort from 1992 to 2000.
Smucker’s bill also creates protection for school districts that warn other districts about teachers who quit in disgrace.
State. Rep. Cherrelle Parker, D-Philadelphia, said that when the legislation makes it to the state House, she will use “every inkling of influence” she has to see that the legislation passes.
“We allow children to spend more time in school” than they do with their parents, Parker said. “We give our most precious gems to educators. It’s now time to say, ‘We will not pass the trash.’ We will make sure the trash is where it should be, in the can with the lid closed.”
Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.