Though school leaders made mistakes in their handling of rumors about an inappropriate relationship between a high school assistant principal and a teenage girl, a Dauphin County grand jury has concluded no laws were broken.
Police arrested Susquehanna Township High School assistant principal Shawn Sharkey in September and charged him with having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student. But, school leaders began to hear rumors in May.
Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico said, “Usually where there’s smoke there’s fire, report it. Let the police sort through it.”
That didn’t happen.
The grand jury report says in May Lorie DiClemente, the vice president of the teachers’ union, went to the district superintendent Dr. Susan Kegerise after overhearing students talking about “a text and picture in relation to Sharkey.” Kegerise told assistant superintendent Dr. Cathy Taschner, who headed up an investigation.
“The focus of that inquiry, or that investigation, was basically whether or not students were spreading false rumors about Mr. Sharkey, not whether or not a child was potentially being victimized,” said Marsico.
Marsico said Taschner and Sharkey himself interviewed students about the allegations. No one claimed to have any direct knowledge of abuse. When interviewed by school district personnel, the alleged victim denied having an inappropriate relationship with Sharkey. The grand jury notes Taschner “could not and did not secure (the victim’s) mobile telephone.”
The teen went on to delete evidence of the relationship from her phone, according to the grand jury.
In June, district leaders sought advice from their legal counsel about what to do. Paul Blunt, who served as the district’s solicitor at the time, advised them not to go to police.
New evidence came to light in September, when police arrested Sharkey. He’s scheduled to appear in court again Feb. 14.
“This advice, in our opinion and in the grand jury’s opinion, unnecessarily delayed discovery of Sharkey’s criminal conduct and could have potentially endangered other students,” said Marsico.
The grand jury concluded because the evidence never went beyond rumors and because the district’s lawyer advised school leaders not to report the rumors, no laws were broken.
“Something where a reasonable person can conclude that the advice is reasonable, I think that would be a possible defense,” said first assistant district attorney Fran Chardo.
School Board Vice President Jesse Rawls Sr. said, “Being an ex-teacher, you do report. But, if your solicitor is saying don’t do it, then you follow the advice of the solicitor.”
The grand jury made some recommendations, including immediately reporting indications of abuse and conducting more thorough background checks of employees. The grand jury found the district “never sought or obtained records relating to Sharkey held by the School District of Philadelphia,” where he previously worked.
The grand jury recommended school employees not do any internal investigation of their own until law enforcement officers complete their investigation. In addition, the grand jury called on state lawmakers to further define the mandatory reporting law.
The district released the following statement but did not comment on whether the district would try to implement any of the grand jury’s recommendations:
Susquehanna Twp. School District respects the diligence and thoroughness shown by District Attorney Ed Marsico and Assistant District Attorney Fran Chardo as well as the thoughtful work from members of the grand jury.
We also appreciate their efforts to make recommendations to state legislators to increase clarity for schools and government agencies in both hiring practices and reporting situations.
“We are anxious for the spotlight to return to our district’s academic, athletic and artistic achievements,” Susan Kegerise, superintendent, said.
The district’s response is related to this afternoon’s press conference. We have no further comment at this time.