State: York schools led Pa. in sex assault reports in 3 of 10 years

Junior Gonzalez
  • Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education reveals sexual assault incidents over the past 10 years.
  • Over 600 incidents have been reported in schools across Pennsylvania since 2004.
  • 87 of the incidents occurred in York county, 78 of which occurred in the York City School District.

In the past 10 years, 616 incidents of student-on-student sexual assault incidents have been reported in schools across Pennsylvania.

Of those, 87 were in York County, and out of the 87 reported assaults, 78 were in the York City School District, according to state data from the Department of Education.

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In fact, of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, York City's district reported the highest number of incidents in a single year — 26 sexual assaults in the 2010-11 school year — during that 10-year period and led the state in number of incidents two other years — 2009-10 and 2011-12.

The reported assaults, dating from the 2004-05 to 2014-15 school years, tracked sexual assault, aggravated indecent sexual assault, involuntary sexual deviate intercourse and rape.

Six local school districts reported incidents in the 10-year period: York Suburban, Northeastern, Eastern, South Western, Hanover and York City.

South Western had three reported incidents, York Suburban and Hanover had two, while Eastern and Northeastern each had one over the 10-year period; the rest were in York City.

The York City School District, which has been in financial recovery since 2012, had its worst incident rates in the years leading up to the declaration, with 17 reported assaults in the 2009-10 school year.

The reported assaults peaked at 26 in the 2010-11 school year, and 24 were reported the following school year, state data reveals.

In the 2014-15 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, York City had three reported incidents related to the four infractions monitored in the report.

All but two of the incidents reported by York City School District during the 10-year period were sexual assaults. The district also reported one aggravated indecent assault in the 2007-08 school year and another in 2014-15.

Likewise, all of the other incidents reported in York County school districts were classified as sexual assaults, except for an aggravated indecent assault reported by York Suburban in 2012-13.

Mandatory reporting: All educational institutions are mandated to report incidents of student sexual assault on school property, regardless of whether they resulted in discipline. These include vocational-technical schools, intermediate units, public school districts and charter schools.

The incidents must be signed off by the school district's "chief school administrator" and the chief of police in the area in which the school resides, according to Article XIII of the Pennsylvania School Code.

"The Department takes all reports of violence seriously and works with schools to address problems when help is requested," Casey Smith, a spokeswoman with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said in a statement via email. "While the department reviews Safe Schools Reports for data accuracy, it is incumbent upon school districts to request targeted assistance from the Department of Education."

In a separate, emailed statement, Smith said the annual Safe Schools report is intended to "provide transparency and satisfy reporting requirements under state law" and that schools are responsible to report and address incidents of violence on school property.

AP investigation: The York Dispatch requested the numbers for all York County school districts after publication of a yearlong investigation by The Associated Press that found more than 17,000 reported sexual assault incidents in public schools nationwide from 2013 to 2014. The report claims the national number is an "undercount" since such incidents are typically under-reported.

In the two years monitored by the AP, Pennsylvania did not require training aimed at preventing, reporting or responding to student-on-student sexual assault.

While Gov. Tom Wolf enacted training measures for students and staff at post-secondary schools through the "It's On Us PA" campaign in 2016, there is currently no requirement for training to prevent or report student sexual assault incidents in secondary schools.

In this file photo, Gov. Tom Wolf talks with the media after a tour at York City School District's Ferguson K-8 on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016. He was at the school as part of his Schools That Teach tour. Bill Kalina photo

Smith said Wolf announced a proposal of a package of bills last month, including one that would amend the Pennsylvania School Code to create a comprehensive anti-violence and anti-harassment policy for K-12 schools, which would include sexual assault.

Why the spike?: York City Police Lt. Troy Bankert said there was a spike in overall sexual abuse reporting after the rape convictions of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, but he said there was no considerable increase in "founded" or probable reports between 2009 and 2012.

Bankert said the department does not differentiate cases based on where they were reported, in or outside of the school, and would not comment on York City School District's numbers.

The district created its own police department in 2014. The force of 14 full-time and part-time officers patrol all of the school’s nine buildings and is headed by Chief Michael Muldrow, who could not be reached for comment.

Few administrators who worked for the district when the spike occurred between 2009 and 2012 are still with the district. In that period, two superintendents have left the district: Sharon Miller, who was terminated by the school board in 2010, and Deborah Wortham, who resigned in 2013. Neither could be reached for comment.

Superintendent's response: In an email statement to The York Dispatch, current Superintendent Eric Holmes said that while the more problematic years correspond with the financial struggles of the district, including more than 200 staff furloughs, the district doubted the accuracy of the data it reported.

He cited the years before and after the three double-digit incident school years as evidence that the years in question are inaccurate.

"This leads us to conclude the accuracy of the data is in doubt and that many of the reported 'sexual assaults' were minor incidents incorrectly reported in the 'sexual assault' category," Holmes stated in the email.

Eric Holmes, superintendent of the York City School District.

He went on to deny the rise of incidents. "We cannot identify any reason for the rise or decline in the number of sexual assaults, as we do not believe such a rise or decline occurred."

Several current board members hesitated to opine on years in which they were not on the board.

James Sawor, who joined the board in 2014, said the current board has not seen incident levels anywhere near the numbers previously cited, but said if the numbers ever started to increase, the board would act.

"That would be serious to us," he said.

Lulu Thomas, director of Pupil Personnel Services at the district, who handles student conduct violations and discipline, would not comment on the levels because she was not in the role until 2015. However, Thomas said she believes the presence of police in every school has helped cut the number of problems in the district.

"(Police are not in schools) to get a student in trouble, they're there to help," she said of the district’s police department, "and I think its helped."

Board president Margie Orr, who was initially appointed to the board in 2009, said she was not aware of the number of yearly incident totals from 2009 to 2012.

York City school board has more open seats than candidates

She added that the board approves expulsions for a number of incidents, including the possession of weapons or drugs and sexual assault, but did not receive yearly totals for incidents regarding sexual assault.

York City School Board member Margie Orr. Bill Kalina photo

Orr said she believes the decrease in incidents was due to discipline crackdowns by administration and the board.

"I think expulsions cut down on them," she said.