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EDITORIALS

EDITORIAL: Demand answers on school sex assaults

The York Dispatch
  • We do everything in our power to keep our children safe, above all else.
  • Yet for part of every day, most days a year, we turn that responsibility over to schools.
  • If schools fail, it is every parent’s absolute right to demand to know what happened.

A few weeks ago, The Associated Press began reporting the results of a yearlong investigation into sexual assaults in America’s schools.

In this file photo, York City School District Superintendent Dr. Eric Holmes gives an update on his district during a press conference regarding the Campaign for Fair Education Funding at the School District for the City of York Administrative Building in York City, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The stories were shocking.

More than 17,000 children from high school- to elementary school-age were sexually assaulted on school property during the four-year period examined, AP reported.

And the true figure is likely higher because such assaults tend to be underreported, some states don’t track the information and those that do vary in how the incidents are classified, according to the news organization.

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

It should be chilling news for parents.

We do everything in our power to keep our children safe, above all else. Almost every waking hour is spent watching them, teaching them and protecting them.

Yet for a good portion of every day, most days a year, most of us turn that responsibility over to schools — and trust they will be just as diligent as we are.

Schools have a legal and moral duty to keep children safe. If they fail, it is every parent’s absolute right to demand to know what happened, why it happened and what school officials are doing to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Nobody wants to hear excuses. Not when it comes to our children.

Reading that national report on school sexual assaults immediately raised the obvious question: How do York County schools compare?

Pennsylvania is one of the states that tracks sexual assaults on school property, requiring every school to report such incidents, along with other crimes, to the state Department of Education by July 31 every year.

The York Dispatch asked the Department of Education for 10 years of data on sexual assaults for each of York County’s 16 school districts.

Keeping in mind that even one incident is unacceptable, the results for the most part weren’t surprising. Some local districts reported a few assaults during the decade:

South Western had three reported incidents, York Suburban and Hanover had two, while Eastern and Northeastern each had one.

One anomaly stood out, however, and it was alarming. The York City School District reported a far-higher number of sexual assaults than any other York County district. The city district accounted for 78 of the 87 local reports.

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.

After that three-year spike, the numbers dropped again. In the 2014-15 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, York City had  three reported incidents.

So what happened in those three years? How did the district respond to the incidents, and what has it done to prevent another spike in sexual assaults?

Those are very reasonable questions everyone should be asking.

Yet this was the district’s response, in an emailed statement from Superintendent Eric Holmes: There was no spike.

The fact the data says otherwise “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," he stated in the email.

“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."

First off, the district doesn’t need to “doubt,” “conclude” or "believe" anything. It provided the information to the state, and the state Department of Education reviews the information for accuracy, according to a spokeswoman.

All district administrators need to do is pull the information provided to the state in 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2012-13 and double check it.

For instance, did the York City School District report 26 sexual assaults to the state Department of Education in 2010-11? Yes or no?

If yes, should some of those have been reported as some other type of incident? How many? What should they have been reported as?

Is the district going to file amended reports with the state for those years? Will the state verify the accuracy of those new figures?

In other words, if this information is incorrect, what is the correct information?

Clearly, there was a failure in each of those three years.

Either the district failed to accurately report the number of sexual assaults occurring in its schools, the state failed to accurately record the information — or an abnormally high number of students were being victimized during that time period.

It’s ridiculous to suggest a spike could not have occurred simply because similar numbers weren't seen before or after — that’s the definition of a spike.

And to use that as a reason for not asking difficult questions is irresponsible at best.

The public — and the state Department of Education, as well as, perhaps, the state auditor general — should demand a full, accurate and honest accounting of school sexual assaults from Holmes, his administration and the York City school board.