DOVER — The Safety and Accountability for Everyone package, which contains three bills to protect Delawareans from sexual predators, passed in the Senate on Thursday.
All three pieces of legislation are sponsored by Sen. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle.
Senate Bill 289, co-sponsored by Rep. Krista Griffith, D-Fairfax, and Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, would expand the state’s laws regarding sexual extortion.
The second act, SB 290, is co-sponsored by Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport, and would require public school districts and charter schools to create policies regarding inappropriate relationships between their employees, contractors, coaches and students.
The final piece of the SAFE package is SB 291, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Woodbrook, and Rep. Williams. It looks to expand Erin’s Law — which requires schools to take preventive measures and implement child sexual abuse programs — to 12th grade and require schools to provide their staff with training on inappropriate relationships with students.
Sen. Poore said every legislator has a certain motive to run for public office, and hers are her three children. She said she could not imagine if one of her children were taken advantage of by a person of trust, and for that reason, she wanted to address the loopholes within state law that can allow predators to evade trouble.
According to the senator, many who engage in inappropriate online behavior with minors are able to avoid legal action because of such loopholes. She explained that verifiable online sexual contact is required to make an arrest, even if there is proof of any online communication with a minor.
“There’s even sometimes proof, but because there hasn’t been sexual contact, based on what our laws say, (there’s) the loophole. Unfortunately, without closing these loopholes, there are people in the state of Delaware who have misused their persons-of-trust ability. They have exploited children. They have groomed families,” Sen. Poore said.
After spending time speaking with the Delaware State Police, the Department of Education, child advocacy groups and Attorney General Kathy Jennings, Sen. Poore began drafting legislation to fix these faults. She said laws currently leave police agencies’ hands tied, as they are unable to apprehend these offenders without proof of sexual communication with a minor online. She added that this can be very disheartening for officers.
Today, an estimated 500,000 predators lurk online, Sen. Poore said. She noted that, of all child sex abuse victims, an estimated 20% will tell someone in their lifetime, and 9 out of 10 victims are abused by someone they know or a person of trust.
Sen. Poore said she spoke with Brian Moore, chair of the Delaware Human Trafficking Interagency Coordinating Council, and they both knew changes had to be made.
“I said to Brian that we have to be missing something in our schools because how is it that these predators are still finding their way in? They are really good. They don’t discriminate against a child or a family. If they see an opening, they take it, and they abuse it, and they use it to their advantage,” Sen. Poore said.
Since last summer, she has been working to introduce the legislation in the SAFE package. During this time, Sen. Poore continued working with advocates for the young, such as the Children’s Advocacy Center of Delaware. This included a visit there to learn how it helps victims of child abuse and their families.
“When a person does this to a child, it absolutely, fundamentally breaks down our trust in our school systems and in our community,” she said.
Numerous arrests of sexual predators have occurred in Delaware in recent weeks, including on April 29, when Jason D. Cooke, a 45-year-old man from Clayton, was charged with five counts of dealing in child pornography. Days prior, former Mispillion Elementary School custodian Darin Albright, 57, of Milford, was arrested and charged with three counts of dealing in child pornography after an investigation stemming from information supplied by Twitter.
A week prior, 53-year-old Wilmington resident William R. Ushler, who worked as Tower Hill School’s director of upper school admissions, was also arrested on five charges of dealing in child pornography.
Earlier cases involve Caesar Rodney High School teacher and wrestling coach Richard L. “Dickie” Howell, who was charged in connection with a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student in January 2015. He eventually pleaded guilty to three counts each of first-degree sexual abuse of a child by a person of trust and fourth-degree rape.
A month later, former Smyrna High School teacher Jennifer J. Suarez was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a fourth-degree rape charge, stemming from an incident with a male student.
In June 2021, former Delcastle Technical High School teacher James Berman was arrested in connection with a sexual relationship with a student that occurred in 2009. He was charged with continuous sexual abuse of a child, eight counts of fourth-degree rape and two counts of second-degree unlawful sexual contact.
While working on the legislation within the SAFE package, Sen. Poore said Rep. Griffith, Rep. Longhurst, Rep. Williams and Sen. Sturgeon provided great insight. Sen. Sturgeon’s background in education and Rep. Griffith’s background as a prosecutor made them natural fits to assist, she added.
On Wednesday, SB 290 was passed in the Senate Education Committee and in the Senate Finance Committee. It includes Senate Amendment 1, added after DOE requested some technical changes — the clarification that inappropriate behavior by adults could have happened at school or out of school, as well as requiring training to address obligations under district and charter school policies.
The bill required a hearing in the Finance Committee due to the inclusion of a fiscal note that directs the Office of the Child Advocate to add staff to implement the education that would be made necessary by the legislation.
Sen. Poore said that, whether it is fighting against sexual extortion or protecting children from sexual predators online and in school, she wants these bills to protect the children whose lives are drastically changed after sexual abuse.
“There are so many challenges in life for our children today, and social media is such a huge driver in the well-being of our students that you don’t realize how much anxiety they’ve developed over this. And now, you have someone who sees a vulnerable kid and then uses that to their advantage. So we want to empower our students,” she said.
“I hope that these pieces of legislation help protect a family that may be subjected to a predator, and I hope that we teach the predators in the state of Delaware that we will not tolerate this behavior.”
Since SB 289, SB 290 and SB 291 passed in the Senate, the trio will be sent to the House of Representatives and assigned to a committee for a hearing.