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What does Pa. law say about reporting sex crimes? - abc27 WHTM

What does Pa. law say about reporting sex crimes?

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Shawn Sharkey Shawn Sharkey
HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) -

Police continue to investigate whether Susquehanna Township School District officials failed to report the alleged sexual abuse of a student in a timely manner.

In a post-Sandusky era, the investigation begs this question: what are schools required to do by law?

Holding a green book about five inches thick, Dauphin County prosecutor Sean McCormack plopped down the law text onto a marble step outside the Dauphin County Courthouse. The sex crime specialist pointed to state law that involves reporting sex crimes.

McCormack explained the statute is a "two-parter" The first part of the law states that a school or institution must call child services if they have knowledge of child abuse involving sex abuse in any capacity while the child is under the school's care. McCormack said an example would be a child being harmed by a relative at home.

The second part of the law further requires school officials or administrators to contact local law enforcement if they have knowledge that a teacher or school employee allegedly had sexual contact or misconduct with a student.

"If the administrator finds out about it, the administrator reports it immediately to law enforcement," McCormack said.

McCormack would not and did not comment on any specific case, he only explained the law in its general nature.

Susquehanna Township police told abc27 News that Susquehanna Township school officials learned of rumors that high school assistant principal Shawn Sharkey had sexual contact with a student as early as May.

Police said school officials conducted their own "internal investigation" around the same time.

Police maintained they were unaware of any sexual misconduct allegations until last Tuesday. Sharkey was arrested Saturday for having sex with a 16-year-old student.

School district solicitor Paul Blunt gave abc27 this statement:

"The administration became aware of a rumor regarding Mr. Sharkey. Despite a vigorous investigation by the administration, which included interviews of every student who had a connection with the rumor, it revealed no evidence that in any substantiated the rumor. Everyone interviewed denied any knowledge of any inappropriate relationship."

Police are investigating the timeline of the school's knowledge and trying to figure out who knew what and when. No charges have been brought against any school official other than Sharkey.

So, what timeline does the law require? Speaking only about the law as written, McCormack said "immediately" is the key word.

"There is no definition of immediately in here, but ‘immediately means pretty fast to me," he said.

Ever since former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on child sexual abuse charges and three former university officials were accused of covering up his actions, the topic of reporting sex crimes has taken front stage.

A public outcry of "why" and "how did this happen" has prompted state lawmakers to make reforming sex abuse laws a priority.

"I think that's something the legislature should be listening to, as to what's the general public's understanding of what we want people in a position of trust to be doing," McCormack said.

Lawmakers returned for their fall session this week, and many have said reforming child sex abuse laws is high on their list. Streamlining the wording of the law to eliminate gray areas and toughen penalties for violators is among the proposed changes to the law.

School officials maintain they found no evidence of sexual misconduct and therefore did not report any "rumor" to authorities. Police argued any rumor, no matter how small, must be investigated by law enforcement, not educators.

McCormack said he has long been an advocate for tougher penalties for violators.

"Somebody is potentially allowing a child to be continuously abused by not reporting something," he said. "I certainly think there should be a higher grading of offense."

No doubt, sex crime awareness and reporting have become fluid territory in our society and the law alike. However, McCormack believes there is a stark difference between law requirements and doing the right thing.

"If you know about [sex abuse], have any guessing whether you should report it or not, I think you should err on the side of the child and actually report it whether the law requires you to do so or not," he said.

 

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