What Duty Do Schools Have to Protect Children Against Sexual Abuse in Pennsylvania?

Fighting For Important Causes In State And Federal Courts

According to the Professional Standards and Practices Commission of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, sexual misconduct allegations make up half of the disciplinary measures taken against Pennsylvania teachers.  While sexual abuse makes up only a portion of these overall misconduct allegations, this is still a serious problem that Pennsylvania law seeks to address by placing certain protections and duties in place to keep children safe from sexual abuse in school.

One of the first protections in place comes from federal law: Title IX.  This law bars sex discrimination, which includes sexual harassment and abuse.  Pennsylvania carries out investigations of these violations, but it also makes teachers and other school workers “mandated reporters” who have to report suspected sexual abuse.  Further, schools have a duty to properly report sexual abuse and to screen teachers, staff, and volunteers who will interact with children for a history of abuse.

For help with a potential child sexual abuse case involving a school, call The Law Office of Andrew Shubin’s Pennsylvania school sexual abuse victim lawyers at (814) 826-3586.

How Title IX Protects Children from Sexual Abuse in Pennsylvania

Many people think of Title IX as a law that deals with girls’ and women’s sports, but it does far more.  This is a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools, and any form of sexual harassment or sexual abuse falls under the category of “sex discrimination.”  As such, Title IX is often the legal hook that state and federal agencies, courts, and our Pennsylvania school abuse victim attorneys can use to hold schools to certain duties to protect children from sexual abuse.

The basic requirements of Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination means the school must also prevent sexual abuse and sexual harassment by teachers, by other students, and by others involved with the school.  In the event that they fail to do so and sexual abuse is reported, they have an affirmative duty to investigate it and take steps to fix the problems that led to the abuse or harassment.

State and federal agencies like both the U.S. and Pennsylvania Departments of Education are often responsible for overseeing these rules.  A school should also have a “Title IX coordinator” who sees to Title IX enforcement and compliance on their campus.  Reports are often initially fielded by these coordinators or agencies, but they can be escalated to a lawsuit after the agency approves the lawsuit.

Under these rules, schools also must not retaliate against a student for reporting sexual abuse.

Pennsylvania Schools and the Duty of “Mandated Reporters” for Sexual Abuse

Many jobs and positions in society are what are known as “mandated reporters.”  These individuals have a legal obligation under 23 Pa. C.S. § 6311, part of the Child Protective Services Law, to report suspected abuse and sexual of children that they come across in their professional capacity.  This makes it a requirement for doctors, nurses, school employees, clergy, police, EMTs, foster parents, and others to report various signs of child abuse or sexual abuse.

In the context of preventing school sexual abuse, having teachers and school employees report suspected abuse means investigating and potentially stopping more abuse in its early stages or at least preventing it from continuing or repeating.  This rule forces other teachers to be on the lookout for signs that their coworkers might be abusing students, and it pushes investigations to occur automatically if abuse is suspected.  This can route out abusers and help bring them to justice more quickly.

However, a motivated abuser is not going to self-report, and merely requiring reporting after the fact can only do so much to deter potential abuse.  This, unfortunately, cannot stop the initial abuse from occurring.  Nonetheless, there are other legal mechanisms for suing schools and seeking justice after sexual abuse has already occurred.

Pennsylvania School Duties for Screening Employees and Volunteers for Sexual Abuse History

Under a series of laws in Pennsylvania, anyone who will have contact with children while working at or volunteering at a school must have certain “clearances” and background check requirements met.  This includes a state criminal background check, a federal criminal background check and fingerprinting, and a specific sexual abuse history check.  These have to be renewed at various points – e.g., every 5 years – and the covered workers and volunteers must update the school quicky if any new charges arise against them.

If a school hires a teacher or volunteer who does not turn in their clearances, they can be in serious trouble.  But while all of this helps prevent known abusers and criminals from interacting with children, it does not necessarily help if the abuser keeps what they are doing a secret and has no criminal record to reflect their danger.  Even so, in combination with other requirements, these rules do put extra duties on schools to help protect children from sexual abuse at school.

Lawsuits for Breach of Duty Regarding Sexual Abuse in Schools

Under the law, we refer to someone’s breach of a legal duty as “negligence” if it leads to harm.  In the case of sexual abuse, victims usually sue on the grounds that the abuser intentionally injured them rather than negligently injured them.  However, many schools and institutions that share liability for sexual abuse cases are found liable on negligence grounds.

There are many cases where schools intentionally act to cover up abuse by quashing reports, destroying records, or even taking disciplinary measures against students and faculty who report abuse.  Even though this might be intentional action, it can be analyzed as a breach of many of the legal duties discussed above.  As such, this can sometimes form the grounds for a negligence case against the school.

What this means, in a practical sense, is that when a school violates its duty to prevent sexual abuse, report sexual abuse, investigate allegations, and correct past mistakes, you can often sue them for it.  So, if your child was sexually abused at school, the school can often be held accountable for its own mistakes.

In addition, the school might be held liable in its role as the abuser’s employer.

Call Our Pennsylvania School Sexual Abuse Victim Attorneys Today

For a free evaluation of your potential case, call (814) 826-3586 to speak with the Pennsylvania sexual abuse victim attorneys at The Law Office of Andrew Shubin.


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