Pennsylvania Lawsuit Puts Schools’ Responses to Sexual Abuse Reports Under Crosshairs

By Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Reporter
Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering Pennsylvania politics, courts, and the commonwealth’s most interesting and sometimes hidden news. Send her your story ideas:
August 21, 2021 Updated: August 21, 2021

A Pennsylvania lawsuit has lawmakers looking closer at how schools should respond to reports of sexual abuse.

A former North Penn School District student is suing a suburban Philadelphia school for failing to protect her from a male classmate who she says sexually assaulted her over 20 times between elementary school and high school during recess, in the classroom, on stairways, in the library and in the lunchroom.

The student, using the name Jane Doe, said that a teacher and teacher’s aide witnessed one of the assaults but did nothing to protect her. The school, in court papers, specifically denies that the teacher’s aide saw anything at all, and it disputes Doe’s version of what the teacher saw.

Doe’s parents spoke with the school about keeping the male student away from her, and later sent her to another school in the district. But the two students ended up at the same high school, where Doe says she was assaulted by him at least 10 more times before she left the school to attend cyber classes.

Four other female students told the school they were also sexually assaulted by the same boy, Doe’s complaint says, although the school disputes this in court papers.

Neither North Penn School District’s public relations spokeswoman nor its solicitor responded to requests for comment for this story.

The case seeks financial damages from the school district.

Confidentiality Rules Prevent Sharing of Information

The case also prompted a special hearing of the Pennsylvania House Children and Youth Committee held this week in Montgomery County, where the North Penn School District is located. The three-and-a-half-hour discussion, hosted by Republican state Rep. Todd Stephens, focused on ways confidentiality rules prevent the protection of abuse victims.

Schools, local police, and Pennsylvania’s child abuse agency, Children and Youth, are all positioned to hear about abuse, but in many cases, confidentiality rules prevent sharing of information.

Often a student acting out in school has something going on at home. Families working with Children and Youth fear being stigmatized so the agency doesn’t automatically tell schools which students have open cases, Jonathan Rubin, deputy secretary for the Office of Children and Youth testified.

Police may interact with a child’s family during the weekend, or pick up a minor for indecent exposure, but they can’t always tell the school about it. Yet it may be helpful for a teacher to know if a child just experienced a stressor at home, or if a student accused of sexually assaulting classmates in school is also showing aggressive behavior in public.

Schools are allowed to skip notifying police and handle some crimes internally, such as simple assault, indecent exposure, and theft.

“We get calls from parents or social media is blowing up and we don’t even know what happened,” testified Tim Troxel, Towamencin Township chief of police. “While we need to collaborate, we also need to stay in our lane. Schools stick to education and let law enforcement investigate crimes.”

Brian Kent, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in a school/parish setting and a former sex crimes prosecutor and attorney who has represented thousands of sexual abuse survivors, described the lasting effects of abuse, then said that every case of intuitional abuse is preventable, with adequate training and protocols and procedures in place and enforced.

“We need to do better and can do better to protect children in our schools,” Kent testified. “That starts with putting the safety of children first in everything we do, no matter what.”

Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Reporter
Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering Pennsylvania politics, courts, and the commonwealth’s most interesting and sometimes hidden news. Send her your story ideas: