School districts across the country have different rules on reporting student sex abuse, often hinder investigations, and only about a third require that employees receive training on how to report suspected abuse, according to a federal study released late Wednesday.

After reading numerous stories by this newspaper about failures to report abuse, Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, requested the federal survey and called the findings a "wake-up call."

"It's a real wake-up call for schools because they want to pretend it doesn't apply to them," Miller said. "It's not an option. It's the law. It's not an option to report (suspicious) behavior."

The report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that districts do not report abuse for a variety of reasons, including to protect their reputations. The report recommends federal assistance to help states create materials to teach school employees how to properly report abuse.

It also recommends federal assistance to create a system to track school employee abuse cases, and funding to help pay for the programs.

The report found that school districts often have conflicting reporting requirements in their attempts to comply with state laws, and violate federal laws that protect children from abuse and harassment.

"As the GAO points out, school officials (in case studies) either weren't clear or didn't want to report. They were trying to manage the case themselves because they didn't want public awareness," Miller said.

"This is a very serious problem. It fails to protect the children and provide a safe place for children at school."

Many schools were in violation of Title IX federal law that requires prevention of sexual abuse and harassment, he said.

Numerous Bay Area districts have failed to report suspicions of abuse to proper authorities as required by law, which in some cases allowed further abuse by school employees.

Since reports by this newspaper, those failures have led to multimillion dollar civil settlements to families of victims and in some instances, criminal charges against the school employee who failed to properly report the abuse.

A survey by this newspaper of 94 districts in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties found fewer than half that responded said they offer their employees the sort of training that experts encourage and the law suggests: annual instruction in how to recognize signs of sexual or other physical abuse, and clear reminders of the legal requirement to report to authorities even the suspicion of mistreatment.

"When you did that story -- that's exactly the situation that we're concerned about," Miller said in an interview.

"(School districts are) interpreting the law the way they want to. The law says you have to engage in preventive activities. It's very hard to engage in preventive activities if you don't do training, especially if you have (staff) turnover. You've got to do training." Among the GAO's findings:

  • 18 of 50 states require abuse reporting training.

  • 46 require background checks for public school employees.

  • 46 states require school employees to report child sexual abuse to authorities; 43 have penalties for not reporting.

  • More than 30 states were not aware of federal resources to help with abuse reporting.

  • There is limited coordination between federal agencies to assist states in incorporating resources to improve the system.

    Miller said laws should be strengthened to prosecute those who do not report properly.

    "If there is not enforcement, then people believe that nobody's really serious about it or that they can get away with it," he said. "And in effect, when they don't report, the school officials are engaged in the obstruction of justice."

    Miller was particularly interested in an ongoing case in his congressional district.

    The Mt. Diablo school district failed to contact police in 2006 after receiving a report of a Woodside Elementary schoolteacher's possible abuse.

    Joseph Martin has since been charged with 125 counts of felony molestation of students.

    This newspaper has sued the school district to get a copy of that report.

    "In Mt. Diablo, this teacher was engaged in creepy behavior. He was grooming these boys -- becoming a friend. That should have all been reported, so you don't have (it escalate to) the sex incident. That's not an option to report it," Miller said. " ... In California, state law is very clear on the responsibility to report this kind of behavior to law enforcement, and yet it wasn't done."

    Sexual abuse by a school employee is particularly "egregious," the report states, because schools are entrusted with caring for children.

    "There are no simple solutions to this problem and, although states and school districts are taking some positive steps, current efforts are clearly not enough," the report concluded.

    Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026 or mgafni@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.