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Alle-Kiski Valley schools update abuse policies

| Friday, March 8, 2013, 7:18 a.m.

As a series of bills aimed at strengthening child abuse reporting requirements moves through the state Legislature, the same high-profile child abuse case that prompted the legislation is already changing how school districts handle reports and suspicions of abuse.

Under state law, all school personnel, including independent contractors, who have direct contact with students are mandated to report suspected child abuse either to the state Department of Public Welfare or a school administrator.

And Alle-Kiski Valley school districts have begun reviewing and updating their district policies in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky trial, in which the former Penn State assistant football coach was convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys, to ensure compliance.

“We are making whatever updates are necessary,” said John Pallone, New Kensington-Arnold School District superintendent. “We have a (number) of staff that come into contact with kids and they are all aware about their duty to report.”

A series of bills introduced dealing with child abuse reporting and prevention were based on recommendations from the state Task Force on Child Protection, formed in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.

The House Children and Youth Committee on Tuesday held a hearing on three bills:

• One would provide for additional safeguards, notifications and due process with respect to the outcome of a child abuse investigation.

• Another would ensure school employees accused of child abuse are subject to the same investigations and held to the same standards as parents, child care workers and other suspected perpetrators.

• The third would expand background clearance requirements for those who volunteer in a role where they supervise children.

Other bills moving through the state Legislature would require specifically assigned school personnel to report suspicions of abuse directly to police or the Public Welfare Department — rather than to an administrator.

Personnel assigned to report abuse “need to be responsible for themselves to make the call and not report ‘up' (to administrators),” said Abbie Newman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chapter of Children's Advocacy Centers.

Other proposals would protect any employee who reports abuse from being sanctioned for reporting it.

A law already enacted requires school employees to receive three hours of training every five years on child abuse recognition and reporting.

“We're going to be training all the bus drivers, secretarial staff, office workers, substitute teachers — anyone who might come into contact with students,” said Frank Ippolito, assistant K-12 principal for Leechburg Area School District.

Joan Mills, program director at a Child's Place at Mercy, Allegheny County's child advocacy center, said the reform effort is “wonderful.”

But she worries that it's not enough to break through people's reluctance to report suspected — or even witnessed — abuse.

“I think people are fearful to get involved even to protect children,” said Mills. “They think they have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt, when in reality you just to have a suspicion.”

One benefit of the legislation is that it makes people aware that child sexual abuse is a real problem, Newman said.

“We need to break the silence and break the secrecy,” she said.

A report of suspected abuse from the public or assigned school personnel is kept confidential and turned over to law enforcement or the county children and youth department to investigate.

“Our job is to report,” said Shelley Shaneyfelt, director of instructional services and public relations in the Franklin Regional School District. “It's not for us to determine if abuse occurred. It's for (Westmoreland County Children's Bureau) to decide.”

Franklin Regional officials last week reviewed policy changes that will bring the district's policies in line with common practices.

In 2011, 78 percent of referrals and reports came from assigned school personnel, known as mandated reporters, according to state Department of Public Welfare data. Schools have consistently reported the highest number of total reports from mandated reporters.

The number of reports stayed consistent with past years in 2010 and 2011 when about 6,900 reports were made.

“We put children first and if we suspect even remotely we will always air on the side of safety for the child,” said New Kensington-Arnold's Pallone. “Our faculty has been very good about it. They're very conscious about what's going on with these kids at home.”

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or Trib Total Media's Daveen Rae Kurutz contributed to this report.

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