School Climate & Safety

Penn State Scandal Shines Light on Child-Abuse Reporting Laws

By Nirvi Shah & Lesli A. Maxwell — November 16, 2011 8 min read
Thousands of students, community members, and Penn State fans gather near the Old Main lawn at Penn State's campus on Nov. 11 in State College, Pa., for a candlelight vigil in support of victims of sexual abuse.
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The sex abuse scandal at Penn State University, which this month led to the firing of storied football coach Joe Paterno and other prominent university officials who did not report the alleged crimes to law enforcement, raises fresh questions about the legal and moral responsibilities of K-12 personnel who are more likely to be in a position to detect physical or sexual abuse of a child.

Experts say most states have clear laws requiring K-12 teachers and other school employees to swiftly and directly report suspicions of abuse to police or child-protection authorities, but there are complex reasons why these so-called “mandatory reporters” may fail to take action.

“I think one of the major impediments to people reporting their suspicions is that they think they have to have more evidence that abuse is occurring,” said Robert J. Shoop, the director of the Cargill Center for Ethical Leadership at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. and the author of several books on sex abuse and sexual misconduct. “But that’s not the case with these laws. If you think abuse could be happening, that’s when you call the professionals.”

The “mandatory reporting” laws in most states spell out that anyone employed in schools is personally responsible for notifying police or child-protection service agencies if they suspect child abuse, according to a recent review of state laws by the Associated Press. Failure to report abuse suspicions have led to teachers being fired, losing their licenses, or being convicted of a crime, although enforcement actions against school personnel are relatively rare.

Only a handful of states—Pennsylvania among them—allow educators who are aware of abuse to merely report it to their workplace superiors, the AP found. Under Pennsylvania’s current law, Mr. Paterno, who reported a possible case of child rape to two of his superiors, did all he was required to do. The law requires that Mr. Paterno’s bosses report the alleged abuse to law-enforcement officials. Those supervisors—Tim Curley, the former athletic director, and Gary Schultz, a former vice president at the university’s State College campus—now face charges that they did not notify police about the suspected abuse that authorities say allowed Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State, to sexually assault more boys. Mr. Sandusky was arrested this month on 40 counts of sexually abusing eight boys.

Some Pennsylvania lawmakers are already calling for that state’s law to be strengthened to require educators and others to notify police directly, rather than leaving it to their supervisors.

As Pennsylvania ponders strengthening its law, Gov. Bobby Jindal, of Louisiana, today issued an executive order requiring anyone working at a public Louisiana college who has witnessed child abuse or neglect to report it to law enforcement within 24 hours, a requirement that until now applied only to child-care providers and K-12 employees, the Associated Press reported.

Part of the reasoning: More than 11,000 high school students are in dual enrollment courses for college credit, so higher education officials have contact with children through those programs and other athletic and cultural activities, the governor’s order said.

Laws Not ‘Murky’

Federal data from 2009 show that most reports of suspected child abuse are made by people who encountered a possible victim at work. Of those, about one in six cases were reported by teachers, according to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

While a few states’ laws may leave room for questions about when something should be reported, most do not, said Francisco M. Negrón, Jr., the general counsel for the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va.

“I don’t think it’s a murky situation,” he said. “I’m surprised in this day and age somebody wouldn’t err on the side of caution.”

Signs of Sexual Abuse

The Child Welfare Information Gateway, which is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, says on its website that observers should consider sexual abuse a possibility when a child:

  • Has difficulty walking or sitting;
  • Suddenly refuses to change for gym or to participate in physical activities;
  • Reports nightmares or bedwetting;
  • Experiences a sudden change in appetite;
  • Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated, or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior;
  • Becomes pregnant or contracts a venereal disease, particularly if under age 14;
  • Runs away; or
  • Reports sexual abuse by a parent or another adult caregiver.

SOURCE: Child Welfare Information Gateway

Even if a child shares information with a teacher and then asks them to keep it a secret, legally, the employee must report it, he said.

“A child might have all kinds of conflicting emotions,” Mr. Negrón said, especially if the child is reporting abuse by a parent or someone close to them. Unlike lawyer-client confidentiality, however, “there’s no privilege between teachers and students,” Mr. Negrón added.

But many suspicions that should be reported still are not, even when the law is crystal clear, said Mary Jo McGrath, an education lawyer in Santa Barbara, Calif., who advises school districts on how to handle sex-abuse cases.

In some instances, school personnel who are suspicious of abuse or who may even have firsthand knowledge of it go through a period of denial because “what they are confronted with is so horrific and so outside their perception of what is possible,” Ms. McGrath said. It’s a phenomenon that Ms. McGrath calls the “psychodynamics” of a sex-abuse investigation.

“People who know this stuff really start to question themselves,” she said. “They think they might have misunderstood what they’ve seen or heard.”

Reputations at Stake

It can be even dicier when teachers suspect a colleague of abusing a child, Mr. Shoop said. In those cases, teachers are often reluctant to report because of the potential to damage a person’s reputation and career, especially if the claims turn out to be incorrect.

“They worry that if they are wrong, the damage is done,” Mr. Shoop said. “And some may worry about retaliation.”

But, while those are understandable reasons for not reporting, they all amount to “rationalizations that undermine the legal and moral duty of protecting children,” he said.

State laws are really the only guide for who must report suspected abuse and to whom. The federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act provides a foundation for state laws by defining child abuse and neglect. At a minimum, that law says, child abuse is “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”

Oregon lawmakers changed the state’s abuse-reporting law five years ago so that all school employees are now mandatory reporters who must directly notify law enforcement or child-protection authorities.

Before the law was toughened, “cases were falling through the cracks,” said Victoria B. Chamberlain, the executive director of the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, the agency which issues and revokes licenses for teachers and other certificated school personnel. The change was sparked by the case of Joseph Billera, a middle school band teacher who was arrested and later convicted for sexually assaulting four female students more than three years after a parent complained to school officials about the teacher’s suspicious behavior.

“In that case, people reported his behavior up the line, but the chain of command was so far up that it didn’t even get reported to our agency until after he was arrested,” Ms. Chamberlain said. Had her agency known, Ms. Chamberlain said it could have taken steps to remove Mr. Billera from the school setting and revoke his license, even before he was criminally charged.

Now, under current law, school districts must annually train teachers and other school personnel on their legal obligations to report any suspected abuse, Ms. Chamberlain said.

“One of the main messages for teachers is that they must remember that it isn’t their job to investigate the abuse,” she said. “We tell them, ‘Don’t overthink it. Your job is to call the people who investigate this stuff for a living and to make sure the child is safe.’”

Still, there are a handful of cases that arise each year that involve a teacher who either didn’t report suspected abuse or waited too long to do so, she said.

Consequences of Silence

One Oregon prosecutor has used the law to charge school officials who didn’t report suspected abuse.

In Lincoln County, along Oregon’s coast, District Attorney Rob Bovett said in one of his cases teachers and staff at an elementary school sat on their suspicions for a long time. He charged the school’s principal, a counselor, and a teacher for violating the state’s reporting law.

“We felt that was a teachable moment for teachers and education professionals,” Mr. Bovett said. Now, his chief deputy district attorney regularly meets with school district staff for training about what the law requires.

“It wasn’t enough just to prosecute the violations,” he said. “We really needed to do this outreach.”

Florida’s law requires anyone, public employees or otherwise, to report suspected abuse to the state’s child abuse hot line, said Erin Gillespie, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Children & Families. From about half the calls, the state finds that there is evidence of abuse, even if it’s not enough to prosecute an abuser, she said. Many of those come from teachers, she said, although the state doesn’t track who makes the calls. But calls drop off sharply in the summer when school is out.

Florida occasionally prosecutes people who don’t call the hot line.

In 2008, a student told North Fort Myers High School science teacher Eric Zuspann that her stepfather had beaten her and been sexually abusing her since she was a child. She asked him not to tell anyone, so she could tell her mother first.

But a few days later, the girl’s stepfather shot and killed her mother, then beat his stepdaughter, fracturing her skull and breaking one of her fingers.

Mr. Zuspann was charged but later acquitted of a first-degree misdemeanor for failing to report the alleged abuse. (In this case, the Florida child-protection agency was also found at fault for not reporting the alleged abuse to the police after beginning its investigation.)

In January, the Florida Department of Education reprimanded Mr. Zuspann, fined him, and put him on probation for a year.

Had the teacher come forward sooner, the outcome might have been different, Ms. Gillespie said.

“You never know.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 07, 2011 edition of Education Week as Penn State Scandal Shines Light on Child-Abuse Reporting Laws


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