Op-ed by Senator Wayne Fontana – 

Testimony from the trial in Pittsburgh involving alleged child abuse by a former Pittsburgh Public Schools police officer underscores the need for better safeguards for our children and clearer reporting procedures for school officials if they suspect child abuse.

That is the goal of my legislation that would require school district authorities to report possible child abuse to authorities within 24 hours. My bill would remove the current confusing patchwork of reporting requirements involving school officials when they believe there are instances of child abuse in school. My legislation makes all school officials mandated reporters of suspected child abuse.

Witnesses at the trial testified that they were abused by the former school police officer on school premises as far back as 1998, yet no student came forward with abuse allegations at that time. That changed in 1999 when the former principal at the Arthur J. Rooney Middle School suspected that inappropriate activity occurred and reported his suspicions to the officer’s supervisors.

Weeks later, the incident was reported to Pittsburgh police. However, the victim refused to be interviewed and the investigation went dormant, according to published reports from the trial.

Neither the principal, nor the officer’s supervisors were required to immediately report the incident to either local or state police or Childline. If my mandatory reporting requirement had been in place in 1999, a full, aggressive investigation likely would have ensued — prompted by the report to police or Childline — and other alleged abuses uncovered from previous years.

Quick action and mandatory reporting of suspected abuse not only stop the abuse and the abuser, but also preserve evidence and eyewitness accounts. One of the problems discussed in the Pittsburgh trial is that there is no physical evidence and witnesses are testifying more than a decade after the alleged incidents.

The testimony in the Pittsburgh case is similar to statements made at the preliminary hearing in the Penn State perjury case now underway in Harrisburg. In that case, a witness to the Sandusky sexual assault asserted that he thought telling Penn State officials about the attack was sufficient and that an immediate report to police was not necessary.

Had the mandatory reporting law been on the books, the details of the alleged incidents (in the Pittsburgh case) or the assault in the Sandusky attack would be fresh on the minds of the witnesses and physical evidence could have been gathered immediately. This material would be useful to law enforcement and court officials in administering justice.

The mandatory reporting measure in Senate Bill 31 is part of a package of recommended bills from the bipartisan, bicameral Legislative Task Force on Child Abuse. The blue-ribbon panel included a wide range of experts from across all disciplines that deal with child abuse. The Task Force was formed after the incidents of child abuse were discovered in the highly publicized Sandusky/Penn State child abuse case. The Task Force, recognizing the value of the legislation that I offered as a means to improve and clarify reporting procedures, supported my plan. My legislation was unanimously reported from the Education Committee in early June. I expect a vote by the full Senate this fall.

My proposal is unambiguous. It clearly and unequivocally imposes duties on school officials regarding the reporting of suspected child abuse. The message from my legislation: if you believe you have witnessed abuse, you are responsible to immediately report it to authorities. Period.

Our children deserve greater protection and our school officials must have the legal tools to ensure that our kids are safe. The details emerging from the trial in Pittsburgh of the former school police officer accused of child abuse and the Penn State perjury hearing from long ago illustrates the great need to act now.