House gets into heated debate over college professor background checks

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It began as an academic debate about academics.

But it turned heated in the Pennsylvania House earlier this week.

The question: should all college professors, even those with very limited contact with minors, be required to get criminal background checks?

State Representative Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon) says yes.

“We either care about minor children or we don’t,” Diamond said on the House floor Tuesday. “We are either in the business of protecting minor children or we are not. I believe this body has said we are.”

The debate was over an amendment presented to Senate Bill 1156, which would close a loophole that lets some medical professionals avoid getting criminal background checks.

In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal,  24 child protection bills passed last year. They required lots of new people, like church and Little League volunteers, to get those background checks.But in a legislative mistake, many health care workers were exempted. SB1196 would strip that exemption away. It was expected to sail through the House and Senate and quickly get to the governor.

But Representative Doyle Heffley (R-Carbon) didn’t like that college professors with limited exposure to minors were exempted from getting those background checks. It caused him to vote against the entire bill last year. When he saw that the bill to reinstate checks for health care workers was coming up, he introduced an amendment that would also eliminate the exemption for some professors.

“If you’re gonna have a set of rules, they should apply to everybody,” Heffley said. “Volunteers at my church have to get them, and that’s OK, but why shouldn’t people who spend their entire day on campus with young people?”

The House debate on the amendment started slowly but gathered steam. Representative Scott Conklin (D-Centre) has Penn State University in his district. He created the exemption for college employees with limited contact last year, and he urged his colleagues to vote no on Heffley’s amendment.

Representative Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery) was agitated that  the lawmaker who represents Penn State would be fighting against background checks. He referenced the Sandusky scandal.

Conklin took exception arguing that background checks would not have caught Sandusky. He also felt PSU was unfairly singled out during the discussion.

“Please leave my district alone,” Conklin said. “Quit bringing up wounds and scraping wounds off that aren’t true.”

Vereb shot back. “You can stick up for your university but we’re gonna stick up for the victims,” Vereb shouted. “I stand for my district too. There’s people from Penn State in my district too, and Temple and every other college. But you know what? There’s victims and we have a duty to defend victims of sexual abuse.”

Vereb also dismissed Conklin’s concern about the costs of the three required background checks, which totals $43.

“My God,” Vereb shouted in a mocking way. “A background check. Every corporation, small and large, mandate drug testing and background checks just to get a job. If they (college professors) can’t afford it with their salary to pay for this background check then tell your people to take it out of their pension.”

There was heat in the exchange and an audible buzz in the chamber when it concluded.

Heffley’s amendment passed overwhelmingly.

The presidents of the 14 state universities sent a letter supporting Heffley’s amendment. They want to require background checks of all state system employees. The union representing professors is challenging that in court arguing it wasn’t collectively bargained and cannot be unilaterally required. But PSSHE Chancellor Frank Brogan says he got the checks.

“The worst time to find out that someone has a problem in their past is after they’ve perpetrated, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid to the greatest degree,” Brogan said.

The bill, with the amendment, needs another vote in the House. It would then go to the Senate. Child welfare advocates are concerned because the bill was expected to pass quickly and remove the exemption for medical professionals.

It’s now hung up.

If it gets through the House, it would be on to the Senate, a chamber whose Majority Leader is Jake Corman (R-Centre) who represents Penn State University.

Heffley doesn’t feel his amendment is a poison pill and is optimistic it will move forward.

“We’re not just closing one loophole, we’re closing two,” Heffley said.

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