December 12, 2018
By Steven B. Barrett, Esq.
Did you know that there is a law in Pennsylvania that is about 20 years old that requires teachers and administrators to report any student sexual abuse or assault committed by educators? Pennsylvania’s Educator Discipline Act (EDA) does just that and most parents in Pennsylvania have never heard of the law. In fact, many teachers haven’t either. The EDA applies across the board – to public or private licensed academic schools and contracted educator providers.
The EDA is potent, but only if its requirements are known by those who are empowered by it – our educators and administrators which number nearly 900,000 across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
In short, the purpose of the EDA was to take away the discretion of each school district in disciplining their teachers. For the same offense, different school districts could handle misconduct wholly differently. Where one district might fire a teacher for moral turpitude, such as sending a student messages that were sexual in nature, another district might simply put a private reprimand in the teacher’s employee file. Worse still, such as in Philadelphia, the principal of a school would investigate their own teacher and decide whether discipline was even warranted. There was no requirement or policy to notify central administration of allegations of abuse or assault. Even if the abusive teacher was given some form of discipline (that is left up to the principal), nothing officially was required to be put into the teacher’s employment file. In many cases, teachers who committed misconduct were simply taken from one school and placed in a different school without anyone knowing the teacher’s history.
Even if an offense leads to termination, under the EDA, the educator and school district cannot avoid publicly reporting the misconduct by entering into a confidentiality agreement whereby the school district agrees not to mention or publicly disclose the reasons for termination. The public has access to all educators who have been disciplined under the EDA.
The EDA was designed to make certain offenses reportable to the Professional Standards and Practices Commission in Harrisburg. Once such a report is received, the Commission undertakes an investigation to determine not only if the educator’s license should be suspended or revoked, but also if the case should be referred to authorities for consideration of criminal prosecution.
Again, for the EDA to work, schools and educators must be aware of its requirements and act on any conduct that might trigger a report to the Commission. Failure to file a reportable offense itself can lead to disciplinary action. Under the Educator Discipline Act, all chief school administrators are required to report within 15 days:
(1) Any educator who has been provided with notice of intent to dismiss or remove for cause, notice of non-renewal for cause, notice of removal from eligibility lists for cause or notice of a determination not to reemploy for cause.
(2) Any educator who has been arrested or indicted for or convicted of any crime that is graded a misdemeanor or felony. For purposes of this section, the term conviction shall include a plea of guilty or nolo contendere.
(3) Any educator against whom allegations have been made that the educator has:
(i) committed sexual abuse or exploitation involving a child or student; or
(ii) engaged in sexual misconduct with a child or student.
(3.1) Information which constitutes reasonable cause to suspect that an educator has caused physical injury to a child or student as a result of negligence or malice.
(4) Any educator who has resigned, retired or otherwise separated from employment after a school entity has received information of alleged misconduct under this Act.
(5) Any educator who is the subject of a report filed by the school entity under the reporting requirements of 23 Pa.C.S. Ch. 63 (relating to child protective services).
(6) Any educator who the school entity knows to have been named as the perpetrator of an indicated or founded report of child abuse or named as an individual responsible for injury or abuse in an indicated or founded report for a school employee.
Astonishingly, more than 50% of those educators who have been reported under the EDA were found to have sexually abused or assaulted students. This is a shockingly high rate of inexcusable misconduct. This statistic alone confirms that there are sexual predators in our schools who have been entrusted with the care and welfare of our children. In fact, there is yet significant underreporting of EDA offenses to the Commission. There is always a level of “protectionism” and “cover-up” that goes on with such sensitive matters. The tragic outcome of such attitudes is clear – the victims, who are our vulnerable children – continue to suffer and remain in an environment that is not as safe or supportive as we would want for our children to develop and grow.