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States Consider Mandating Sex Abuse Reporting After Penn State Scandal

At least five states may strengthen laws requiring teachers and coaches to report abuse.

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After a string of Penn State University officials failed to inform law enforcement about former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky's alleged sexual abuse of children, several states are looking at their "mandatory reporting" laws that require certain professionals to report child abuse to police.

Ousted head football coach Joe Paterno and assistant coach Mike McQueary are in the clear, legally, because Pennsylvania law does not require athletic coaches to report knowledge of child abuse, although the state requires teachers, clergy members, doctors, social workers, and other related professionals to inform police of child abuse.

[Learn how authorities are investigating the Penn State case.]

Currently, 32 states and Washington, D.C. require teachers to report child abuse to law enforcement, and laws in Connecticut, Iowa, Washington, and Washington, D.C. have specific clauses that mention athletic coaches.

Pamela Pine, founder of the nonprofit Stop the Silence: Stop Child Sexual Abuse, says she hopes the Penn State allegations will serve as the "beginning of a wakeup call," and that if it does spark a national conversation on child sexual abuse, that "something good could grow out of this."

After Casey Anthony was found not guilty in the murder of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee, many states introduced forms of "Caylee's Law," which would require parents to report their missing child within a certain time frame or face criminal charges. Legislators are similarly acting quickly after the alleged Sandusky abuse came to light.

A recently introduced bill in New York would require college officials and coaches at all grade levels to tell police about child abuse, and lawmakers in Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Iowa, and Maryland have expressed interest in strengthening mandatory reporting laws. Pine says those states are on the right track, and all states should take a look at their laws.

"I think any state [that] doesn't look at [its] laws right now is probably going to regret it at some point," she says. "They sure as hell should close those loopholes" that allowed Penn State officials to avoid facing legal action, she adds.

[Read an opinion on why Penn State rioting loses sight of the victims.]

While Pine believes mandatory reporting laws should be strengthened, she says the scandal also offers a good opportunity for parents and others to focus on preventing sexual abuse of children. Estimates on rates of sexual abuse vary widely, but nonprofits that monitor the issue continue to cite a 1997 report by the Pediatric Annual journal that estimated as many as one fourth of girls and one sixth of boys will be sexually abused by the time they are 18.

"That's 50 million adults," Pine says. "It's mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, coaches, teachers, after-school tutors, and neighbors" doing the abusing, Pine notes. "We're talking about our community."

Several high school teachers across the country have faced sexual abuse allegations in recent years, leading states such as Virginia and Missouri to consider bans on teacher-student Facebook friendships, among other measures. So far, both states have backed off after teachers said the social media site has academic value.

Virginia instead decided to issue electronic communication guidelines that say Internet communication between teachers and students should be "transparent, accessible to supervisors and parents, and professional in content and tone." The Missouri law was temporarily repealed after the Missouri State Teachers Association filed a lawsuit against the state. The case will be heard in February.

[Read more about student-teacher social media restrictions.]

Pine says there needs to be "clear parameters" about what types of communication between teachers and students are appropriate, and that becoming Facebook friends with a student "seems to be crossing the line a little bit."

She adds that parents need to know who their child is associating with, especially in one-on-one situations. Sexual abuse, she says, often includes a "grooming" process in which an adult will buy victims clothes or toys.

"If your child is coming home with new clothes [or] jewelry, that should ring a bell," she says. "A lot of the old wisdom is good here as well: Do you know where your children are? Do you know the families that your children are going to visit?"

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