The reporting of alleged child sex abuse might have gone horribly wrong in the cases at the center of the Penn State scandal, but several local school districts and child protective services say their own procedures are sound.
Pamela Buehrle, director of the Lehigh County Office of Children and Youth, said the grand jury allegations against former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and university administrators could be a wake up call for some school districts. But she’s not sure lawmakers’ proposals to stiffen penalties for failing to report abuse will improve the system.
In Lehigh County, “as far as reporting goes, I think it works pretty well,” Buehrle said. The county gets about 900 calls a year of allegations of severe abuse, such as a child who has been sexually assaulted or seriously injured. Another 2,800 calls come in of more general complaints of child neglect, such as truancy or lack of medical care. Her agency hasn’t seen a spike in abuse reports since the Penn State scandal erupted.
For the child abuse reports, which frequently come from the Pennsylvania Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-932-0313), the agency is required to investigate within 24 hours. If the allegations are of sex abuse or serious injury, the police get involved.
Pennsylvania stipulates that school employees and others who work with children are “mandatory reporters” of child abuse. Some legislators want to make it mandatory for more people to report suspected abuse. Buehrle said it’s possible such a move could backfire by flooding investigators with reports and making it hard for them to focus on the most serious, credible cases.
Here’s what some Lehigh Valley school districts say about their policies:
In the Bethlehem Area School District, teachers, aides and other employees are instructed to report suspicions of abuse to a school counselor and/or the building principal, said Dean Donaher, director of student services. Then the counselor and principal are required to contact the authorities immediately.
“You drop whatever else you’re doing and you focus on this because there’s nothing more important than the safety of a child,” he said. They’ve had cases in which they’ve kept a child in school at the end of the day because they were waiting for a caseworker or police officer to come investigate a report.
He stressed that school staff need only “reasonable suspicion” that abuse has taken place and they leave it up to police or the Children and Youth caseworkers to evaluate the evidence.
A former high school principal, Donaher said he’s had his share of phone calls from angry parents who felt the district overreacted in reporting suspicions of abuse.
“I’ve taken many a verbal beating from a parent,” he said. But he’d rather err on the side of caution than ignore a suspicion and be wrong, he said.
Bethlehem reviews its child abuse reporting policies with its staff at the beginning of each school year.
Saucon Valley School District Superintendent Sandra Fellin said district employees are instructed to report suspected abuse to their superior--say a principal--who in turn makes sure that police and child protective services are notified that day.
“Several years back you needed to have that proof,” Fellin said. “Now it shifted to any reasonable suspicion.”
As with Bethlehem, sometimes the district hears from parents who feel the school overreacted in reporting.
“We do get those phone calls when parents many times feel infringed upon,” she said. But “our job is to ensure the safety of the children in our building.”
The mandatory reporting policy is reviewed with staff at the beginning of each school year, she said.
Parkland’s Director of Student Services Robert Thornburg said in an e-mail that he’s satisfied with the district’s protocol and that staff get periodic training from the county’s Children and Youth office.
Parkland’s policy says "School employees who suspect child abuse shall immediately notify the school principal, who shall notify the Director of Student Services. Upon notification, the Director of Student Services or designee shall report the suspected child abuse."
"Reports of child abuse shall immediately be made by telephone to the Childline Abuse Registry and in writing to the county Children and Youth Agency within forty-eight (48) hours after the oral report."
"The Director of Student Services shall exercise no discretion but has an absolute duty to report when receiving notice from a school employee," the policy states.
East Penn School District Superintendent Thomas Seidenberger and Director of Student Services Thomas Mirabella said district administrators consult with Children and Youth staff, state police and the district solicitor each summer to make sure their protocols for handling child abuse reports are up to date.
The staff know they are required to report any suspected abuse and they are instructed to take it to the building principal who can sit with them while they make the call to the child abuse hotline. They want the person who is first made aware of the abuse to place the call so the information doesn’t get garbled in the retelling.
“We report immediately without delay,” Mirabella said. Then it’s up to the county caseworkers and police to evaluate the information and investigate.
As in other districts, administrators sometimes get flack from families for reporting their suspicions.
“In a lot of cases we’re accused of being overly cautious,” Seidenberger said.
“I don’t know anyone who hasn’t taken this seriously,” he said.