Teaching Profession

Penn State Scandal Shines Light on Laws for Reporting Abuse

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 06, 2011 7 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.

The sex-abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University, which last 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 especially 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 “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 has led to teachers being fired, losing their licenses, or being convicted of a crime, although enforcement actions against school personnel are relatively rare.

Under Examination

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, which authorities say allowed Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State, to sexually assault more boys. Mr. Sandusky was arrested last month on 40 counts of sexually abusing eight boys. He has denied the charges.

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

The U.S. Department of Education is now investigating whether Penn State broke federal law in failing to report allegations of sex abuse. The federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, or Clery Act, requires colleges and universities to disclose criminal offenses on campus that are reported each year. In certain cases, the institution must issue a warning if a reported crime represents a threat to the campus community.

Federal lawmakers are also looking into the issue. The U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing Dec. 13.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are calling for that state’s law to be strengthened to require educators and others to notify police directly, while other states also taking action in the wake of the Penn State scandal.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, of Louisiana, issued an executive order Nov. 16 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 had applied only to child-care providers and K-12 employees, the Associated Press reported.

In New York, a new proposal would make college coaches, athletic directors, professors, and college administrators—in addition to teachers, doctors, and high school coaches—mandatory reporters of sexual abuse of children. And Wisconsin’s governor recently signed into law a measure to broaden and toughen the state’s existing mandatory reporting law based on an unrelated case.

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 came from teachers, according to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

No ‘Murky Situation’

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.”

Even if a child shares information with a teacher and then asks that it be kept a secret, legally the employee must report it, he said.

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 suspect 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.”

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 false.

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

State laws are 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. Chambelain, the executive director of the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, the agency which issues and revokes licenses for teachers and other 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, school districts must annually train teachers and other school personnel on their legal obligations to report any suspected abuse, Ms. Chamberlain 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 six months. He charged the school’s principal, a counselor, and a teacher with 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 employees for training about what the law requires.

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 and Families. From about half the calls, the state finds evidence of abuse, even if it’s not enough to prosecute an abuser, she said. Many of those calls come from teachers, she said.

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. 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 severely beat his stepdaughter.

Mr. Zuspann was charged with 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 Laws for Reporting Abuse

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