HARRISBURG – Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Thursday that more than 1-in-5 school districts have not updated their policies to comply with one the state’s keynote legal changes inspired by the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.
The state’s landmark 2014 revision of child protection law required that mandated reporters directly notify a state child welfare tipline instead of just sharing information with their supervisors.
But 244,000 students across Pennsylvania attend school districts that either didn’t update their policies or don’t have any policy spelling out how abuse allegations are supposed to be reported, based on a review by Auditor General's office.
“It is completely unacceptable for any district to have an outdated or missing policy dealing with suspected child abuse,” DePasquale said. “The fact that nearly a quarter-million Pennsylvania students attend school districts that lack updated policies is appalling.”
In response to the Sandusky case, Pennsylvania took steps in 2014 to make sure that no one at the local level could sweep reports of suspected child abuse under the rug, DePasquale said. School districts have had more than four years to update policies that outline the steps staff must take to report suspected child abuse and neglect, and about 79 percent of school districts have done so, he said.
“That leaves 21 percent of districts without an updated policy that requires staff to report child abuse and neglect concerns directly to ChildLine, the state’s child-abuse hotline,” DePasquale said. “This is important because it means their teachers and support staff might not be properly trained to act as the first line of defense against abuse and neglect.”
Last fall, DePasquale began checking every school district to determine if updated policies were in place. As a result of his inquiry, 38 districts either implemented new policies or updated existing ones.
“While I am encouraged that many districts got my wake-up call, I am very troubled to find districts in this situation after having more than four years to get it done,” DePasquale said. “Did these school districts learn nothing from the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal?"
DePasquale said that he’s seen no evidence that any child was harmed because a school district failed to report abuse.
Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice, said the failure to update district policies to reflect the change in law could have consequences, in particular, for staff. A teacher or other school employee who follows the district’s outdate reporting policy and fails to report abuse allegations would be violating state law, she said.
Palm said the oversight is a reflect of how state lawmakers pass laws and then too little is attention to whether the changes are adequately followed across the state.