Last week, the Allegheny County district attorney announced that his office was investigating whether Pittsburgh Public School officials properly handled accusations that a school police officer had sexually assaulted a former student more than a decade ago. Even more disturbing is that officials suspect that there are additional victims that have not come forward yet about abuse they endured by the same individual.
In May 1999, the district conducted an internal investigation of the alleged incident and by June that year, the chief of school police recommended the termination of this school police officer. However, various officials within the school at that time told the chief of school police that no issues needed to be forwarded to law enforcement and no grounds existed to fire the accused police officer of the crime. The school police officer returned to work shortly after the internal investigation was finished and has been working with children since.
Under the Child Protection Law, current school employees are required to report abuse to their supervisors who then may decide whether it rises to a level of reporting it to ChildLine or to law enforcement. ChildLine is a program within the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare that accepts calls from the public which provides information, counseling, and referral services for authorities or victims of abuse.
This situation is another example of school officials following the state law when it comes to reporting abuse and how Pennsylvania needs to move legislation now to strengthen the Child Protection Law. In fact, in 2011, there were only eight reports of abuse by a school employee. This number is down from the 15 reports of abuse in 2010. These low numbers illustrate the lack of strict reporting standards.
Early in 2011, I introduced Senate Bill 549 (SB 549) that would require school employees to report suspected abuse to both school authorities and law enforcement immediately so that the discretion of the school is removed. My legislation has over 35 co-sponsors and clearly shows bipartisan support, yet SB 549 has been stuck in the Senate Appropriations Committee since June 2011.
SB 549 is nothing new. I have introduced a form of this bill since 2005 and over the past few years, I have tweaked the legislation as I continue to work with stakeholders to improve the measure to meet their suggestions and recommendations.
Last week, I sent letters to the Senate leadership and the Appropriations Committee Chairpersons urging them to move my legislation. I also attached the article about the investigation taking place in the Pittsburgh Public School District right now. Although this incident happened in a school in my district, I believe the entire state should be made aware of it because the time is now to better protect children from abuse and end the practice of not reporting to law enforcement. Action on SB 549 has long been overdue and as we are reminded here, everyday that my measure isn’t law is another day more children are at risk.
Senator Wayne D. Fontana
42nd Senatorial District