NPR logo

After Sandusky, A Debate Over Whether Sex-Abuse Law Goes Too Far

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/417434108/417516497" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
After Sandusky, A Debate Over Whether Sex-Abuse Law Goes Too Far

Law

After Sandusky, A Debate Over Whether Sex-Abuse Law Goes Too Far

After Sandusky, A Debate Over Whether Sex-Abuse Law Goes Too Far

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/417434108/417516497" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The Penn State University campus in State College, Pa. A new state law requires university professors to get a background check every three years and have their fingerprints taken. Gene J. Puskar/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Gene J. Puskar/AP

The Penn State University campus in State College, Pa. A new state law requires university professors to get a background check every three years and have their fingerprints taken.

Gene J. Puskar/AP

University professors in Pennsylvania are upset over a new law that requires them to get a child abuse background check every three years and have their fingerprints taken.

The law was passed after the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal. In 2012 Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach, was convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. He'll likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

Most of Sandusky's crimes took place off campus. But this law, enacted because of his crimes, affects all college and university campuses in the state. The law applies to anyone at schools and colleges who interacts with people under 18 years old. This includes elementary school teachers, preschool workers and college professors who might teach 17-year-old freshmen.

"I don't consider my students to be children," says Penn State art history professor Brian Curran. He's also president of the local advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Curran says the law's intentions are good, but including college professors doesn't make sense to him.

"Standing in some line and being fingerprinted — it just doesn't feel right. It seems intrusive in some sort of basic way," he says. And it's expensive. Penn State expects to spend up to $3 million for this first round of fingerprints and screening.

While professors have been the most vocal critics so far, the law applies to a wide range of people on campuses, from secretaries to janitors. Among the criminal convictions that would prevent someone from getting a job: prostitution, drug offenses and sexual abuse.

Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children's Justice, says advocates waited decades before the Sandusky case to strengthen Pennsylvania's child abuse laws. She supports this law, but said it may need some changes.

"We struck a pretty good balance the first round. We didn't clarify things enough. So now we're back trying to clarify it," Palm says. But she warns, "There's a difference between clarifying and walking back protections."

Pennsylvania lawmakers are debating how the language should be changed. Palm says the standard for who falls under the law should be based on the kind of contact a person has — not where it takes place.

"Where there are young people who will have interaction with adults — especially unsupervised interaction — it shouldn't matter that it's a college campus. ... We need to get those folks screened," she says.

This is just one of the nearly two dozen changes to Pennsylvania law prompted by the Sandusky case. Even the definition of what is child abuse has been changed in the state. That's creating some uncertainty and charges in cases that would not have been considered child abuse in the past, according to Janet Ginzberg, senior staff attorney at Community Legal Services. Her group provides free legal services, in civil matters, to low-income Philadelphians.

"I know of some cases where people have been charged with child abuse under the new standards, but they haven't worked their way through the courts yet," Ginzberg says.

As details of those cases become public, she predicts years of legal battles ahead. In this post-Sandusky-scandal era, Pennsylvania now must sort out exactly what is child abuse and who should face extra screening because they work with kids.