When public school leaders in New York have reason to believe a student in their care has been sexually abused by a school employee or volunteer, they are required by law to report it to local law enforcement.
Sounds obvious, right?
But the law, enacted in 2000, is conspicuous for who it leaves out. Private schools are under no such obligation to report abuse allegations to authorities — and as numerous investigations have recently revealed, many of them didn’t for decades, choosing instead to keep things quiet in hopes of protecting the school’s reputation. But that’s something advocates and lawmakers are hoping will change as a bill wends its way through the state Legislature this month.
“It’s a no-brainer,” said Assemblyman Dave McDonough, a Long Island Republican who first introduced the bill in 2016. “There are 492,000 children in New York private schools who aren’t afforded this protection. It’s a shame they never had it.”
Public school children also lacked it for a long time, experts say, because most parents assumed their children were already protected by mandatory reporting laws governing child abuse. These laws require certain professionals who have regular contact with children — including doctors, teachers and child care workers — to report suspected child abuse or neglect to a statewide hotline.
But the law had a major loophole: Reporting was only mandated when the suspect was a parent, guardian or other person legally responsible for a child.
“Once enough parents realized this, they got shocked and they got angry,” said Stephen Forrester, director of government relations and administration at the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
The 2000 law affecting public schools established a separate reporting system: Suspected cases of abuse by school personnel must be reported to local law enforcement, since the state’s Child Protective Services unit is only authorized to investigate cases involving parents and guardians.
The bill currently being considered by lawmakers would extend this reporting mandate to private schools. Those who don’t report abuse would be subject to civil or criminal liability. It would also forbid school authorities from agreeing to withhold reports of abuse from law enforcement in exchange for the accused person’s resignation — a practice that has been widespread among private schools and has led to perpetrators being passed from school to school, according to a 2016 Boston Globe report.
Like the Catholic Church before it, private schools in the U.S. — boarding schools in particular — have come under increased scrutiny after a number of recent investigations revealed sordid histories of widespread abuse by staff, and higher-ups who swept it under the rug.
In April, the elite all-girls Emma Willard School in Troy joined the dubious ranks of Horace Mann in New York City and Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut after a 96-page report revealed seven decades of abuse at the hands of faculty members.
The report was prompted by allegations made last year by former student Kat Sullivan, who alleged that she had been raped by a male teacher in 1998 only to be shipped off on a bus by school officials seeking to cover up the situation. She reached a legal settlement with the school last year, and has been advocating for stricter laws to prevent such abuse.
“Whenever you have a closed system — and by ‘closed’ I mean a system that operates outside the regulations everyone else is held to — you get an insular system that is basically allowed to do whatever it wants,” said Mary Pulido, executive director of The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
“Look at this U.S. gymnastics scandal,” she said. “Look at the Catholic church. Look at the (Jewish) Orthodox system. These are closed systems that no one was looking at. The reporting laws were either not there, or they were disregarded.”
McDonough’s bill, first introduced by the Republican assemblyman in 2016, didn’t make it out of committee last year. A Democratic colleague, Assemblyman Fred Thiele, introduced a bill this session with the exact same wording except for a line about the effective date. Both bills were approved by the Assembly Education Committee on Tuesday, and moved to the Assembly Codes Committee.
“I don’t give a damn whose name is on the bill,” McDonough said. “We just want to get this done.”
The legislative session is slated to end later this month.