A new bill prompted by the inability of a Delaware school board to remove a member charged in 2019 with raping two boys would require the immediate suspension of any member arrested for a violent crime.
The legislation’s chief sponsor is Democratic Sen. Laura Sturgeon, a retired teacher. Sturgeon told WHYY News she was shocked that Ronnie Williams could remain on the Colonial School District board even while being held on $345,000 cash bail for 19 counts felony counts of rape and sexual assault against the children.
“The idea that there’s no way to suspend that school board member temporarily seemed to be really problematic, and potentially harmful for children who school board members could have access to,” Sturgeon said.
The legislation would close a loophole in Delaware law, which contains no specific mechanism to suspend or remove a school board member for misconduct or other reasons, according to John Marinucci, executive director of the Delaware School Boards Association.
Sturgeon says her bill, which has more than a dozen co-sponsors in the Senate and House, does not aim to “take away the voice of voters, but we also want to protect children. I think that the piece of legislation that we have filed strikes the right balance.”
Williams’ charges remain pending while lawmakers consider the legislation that Sturgeon hopes to bring up for a vote before the General Assembly adjourns June 30. That’s because trials have been postponed during the coronavirus pandemic, said Mat Marshall, spokesman for Attorney General Kathy Jennings.
WHYY learned this month that Williams, 42, resigned in September via a handwritten letter written from prison – a move the Colonial board accepted in October. His letter said he was stepping down “with great sadness and reservation” and though it did not mention his arrest or detention status, cited “certain allegations lodged” against him a few months after his May 2018 election to a five-year term.
Colonial members had known about the child rape allegations months before his arrest. After Williams was formally charged, then-Superintendent Dusty Blakey said the district was powerless under the law to take punitive action. Blakey also urged lawmakers to “strengthen’’ the law.
Sturgeon said her bill does just that in a variety of ways.
Beyond requiring that school board members be suspended and then removed unless they are exonerated of charges, it requires:
- Prospective local school board or state Board of Education members undergo the background check that educators and others who work with children must get.
- The state elections commissioner to determine that someone doesn’t have any disqualifying convictions before allowing them on the ballot. Beyond violent felonies, those crimes include any sexual offense a child and public corruption offenses such as bribery or abuse of office.
- Suspension of a charter school board member charged with a disqualifying offense.
Those members already undergo criminal background checks.
Sturgeon stressed that while school board members “may not be in schools daily, teaching children like teachers, they could have access to our schools. They can go and visit our schools. They’re trusted members of the community in there. And it’s assumed, right, that they are trustworthy around children because they are school board members.”
The requirements of her bill would provide an extra level of assurance to voters, parents, and children, she said.
Marinucci said he supports the bill and added that it’s not designed to deter citizens who have had minor misdemeanors, or been accused of misdeeds but not charged criminally, from running for school boards.
“We’re talking about you’re arrested, you’re in jail for a very violent crime,’’ he said.
Atnre Alleyne, who runs the education nonprofit Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now, said the bill is a positive step.
He remains flabbergasted that Williams could retain his seat on the Colonial board after being charged with sexual crimes against children.
Alleyne said students even asked him about Williams being able to remain in his seat, and said “the optics’’ alone were terrible. “That is not something that I think we want, as people that care about education.”
Get daily updates from WHYY News!