Grand jury: Pa. school officials 'ill-equipped' to investigate abuse claims

Shawn Sharkey, an assistant principal at Susquehanna Township High School, is accused of carrying on a sexual relationship with a then-16-year-old student.

Susquehanna Township School District officials should not face criminal charges for their handling of student sex abuse allegations brought against an assistant principal, according to a grand jury report released Friday.

Still, the findings “demonstrated that school district employees are ill equipped to conduct even a preliminary investigation of sexual or physical abuse of a child,” a release from the Dauphin County District Attorney’s Office stated. In addition, the release pointed out, the investigation brought to light the inadequacy of the pre-employment background check school officials performed on 43-year-old Shawn Sharkey.

Sharkey was hired last February as assistant principal of Susquehanna Township High School. According to the district attorney’s office, he started having sex with a 16-year-old student – who court documents identify only as “M.S.” – just 10 days after his start date.

Since Sharkey lived in Montgomery County, several hours away from the high school, he would often stay overnight in Harrisburg-area motels, the grand jury report states. Sharkey is accused of “frequently and feloniously” having sex with the teen at those motels.

The school district launched an internal investigation into Sharkey’s relationship with the student in May, after a teachers’ union official stated two students overheard two other students talking about a text and picture involving Sharkey.

An assistant superintendent was tasked with looking into the matter. But, after arriving at the school, she found Sharkey and another assistant principal had already questioned the students about the claim, which was being treated as rumor rather than possible criminal conduct. “The focus of the inquiry was whether or not students were spreading false rumors about Sharkey, not whether or not a child was potentially being victimized,” the grand jury report stated.

According to the report, M.S. denied having an inappropriate relationship with Sharkey, and the assistant superintendent was unable to secure the student’s cell phone. “As a direct result of the School District interview, M.S. deleted evidence of her relationship with Sharkey from her telephone,” the report states. The grand jury found the assistant superintendent concluded her investigation after the students interviewed denied having direct knowledge of an inappropriate relationship between Sharkey and M.S.

The school district, based on the advice of its solicitor, did not formally refer the “rumor” to police until Sept. 17, when a female student came forward claiming M.S. told her during the previous school year she was “engaged in a sexual relationship with Sharkey,” according to the report. M.S. allegedly said Sharkey planned to leave his wife when M.S. turned 18.

The grand jury found the decision not to report the allegations until after summer break “unnecessarily delayed discovery” of Sharkey’s conduct and “potentially endangered other students.”

After the claims were reported, the Dauphin County District Attorney’s Office got court orders to obtain call detail records for cell phones used by Sharkey and M.S. Susquehanna Township detectives received search warrants to seize the phones based on the records.

When police interviewed M.S., she allegedly confirmed she had sex with Sharkey on numerous occasions in his Harrisburg-area motel rooms. Sharkey was charged Sept. 20 with institutional sexual assault of a minor, corruption of a minor and unlawful contact with a minor, all felony offenses.

“In short, law enforcement agencies working together developed probable cause to arrest Sharkey within 3 days of initiating a criminal investigation,” the grand jury report states. “This investigation used resources unavailable to the School District.”

The report concluded that school district officials lack the training needed to “conduct a meaningful investigation” of possible abuse cases. It states preliminary internal investigations into misconduct can “very often” tip off a suspect and limit the availability of information, even once police become involved.

Therefore, the grand jury found, it should be mandatory to immediately refer any abuse allegations involving school district personnel to police and to refrain from conducting informal interviews of those involved until a law enforcement investigation is concluded.

The grand jury further recommended that the state consider legislation making it clear school personnel are required to report all abuse allegations “from any source including rumor.”

The grand jury found Susquehanna Township School District officials never looked at Sharkey’s records held by the School District of Philadelphia, where he previously worked as an assistant principal. In fact, the report notes, it’s not routine for school districts, when hiring teachers from other school districts, to obtain applicants’ personnel files.

While Sharkey’s records from his time in Philadelphia didn’t contain any indication of predatory behavior, they painted a picture of someone who may not have been the most qualified for the job, according to the report.

“For instance, Sharkey’s undergraduate academic record was not of the level one would expect for a high school administrator,” the report states, noting Sharkey had a cumulative GPA of 2.36, which included C grades in 21 courses. “Tellingly, Sharkey failed a class in human sexuality and then achieved a D when he retook the class the following semester. His grade in adolescent psychology was a C-.”

The grand jury investigation also revealed Sharkey was “notably deficient” in maintaining his state teaching certification while working in Philadelphia. He was in 2004 issued an emergency permit, which is supposed to be given to teachers who are not yet certified but are needed to fill a sudden vacancy in a school district. Instead of working to achieve full certification, Sharkey served on an emergency basis for the legal maximum of two years, according to the report.

The investigation found Sharkey’s Philadelphia file contained admonishments for his failure to promptly achieve certification, as well as documents showing he failed to respond to the warnings, causing school officials to threaten his termination.

The grand jury suggested all Dauphin County school districts should obtain applicants’ academic transcripts and personnel files from prior education employment. The report recommended the state consider legislation creating a central repository for records of disciplinary action taken against licensed teachers or administrators and to mandate schools send on the records “to prevent problem teachers from moving from one school district to another without consequence.”

Aside from the numerous investigations and pending criminal case, the controversy surrounding Sharkey is also the subject of a federal lawsuit filed in November against the school district. The suit claims district personnel failed to maintain the student’s personal security and failed to investigate misconduct allegations. It further claims that the district was negligent in hiring Sharkey and indifferent to his alleged conduct.

Contact Alex Wigglesworth at 215-854-2305 or Follow @phila_lex on Twitter.

Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443; Follow @phillynews on Twitter.