He added that he's unsure of the extent of unreported abuse. "I know with the Penn State thing, people think that it's happening everywhere," he said. "But I don't know how big of a problem it is. I don't know that anybody does."

Janet Hartge, assistant director of advocacy for children for the state's Legal Aid Bureau, questioned whether criminal penalties would cause more people to report abuse.

"I think there is unreported abuse, but it tends to be unknown abuse," said Hartge, who works with numerous child abuse cases. "I don't think it's usually a matter of people knowing and not coming forward."

She said that with criminal penalties in place, she would worry that some educators might close their ears to allegations of abuse because it would be less risky for them to remain ignorant.

What made the Penn State case so unusual, she said, is that a then-graduate assistant on the football team allegedly witnessed the abuse.

Pennsylvania law treats the failure to report abuse as a misdemeanor, but the reporting requirements are less strict. For example, Paterno apparently met his legal obligation by reporting the suspected abuse to his boss. In Maryland, he would have been expected to contact a social service or law enforcement agency and to submit a written report that would have been copied to a local state's attorney.

In Maryland, school systems already emphasize the need to report child abuse, with most employees going through training every year to refresh their understanding of the rules. Maryland's code on family law requires them to report abuse to a social service or law enforcement agency as quickly as possible and also to send a written report to the local state's attorney within 48 hours.

Those who fail to report abuse can face the loss or suspension of their teaching certificates, but such situations arise infrequently, said Buckler, of the state Department of Education.

"We've been really doing a lot around this issue for many years," he said. "Our employees undergo training every year, and it's something that we've taken seriously for a long time."

Buckler said he urges educators to err on the side of reporting potential abuse. "If you think something is wrong, report it and let the experts in child services do their jobs," he said. "I don't see a real gray area on this."

That's a message that has hit home with educators, said Sean Johnson, legislative director for the Maryland State Education Association. Johnson said Maryland's law is already more complete than its Pennsylvania counterpart.

"The penalty for not doing it," he said of reporting, "is that you lose your job. That's already pretty significant."

The Penn State case was unusual because it allegedly happened at a university rather than a K-12 school. Though university educators are also covered by Maryland's mandatory reporting laws, the issue does not come up as much as it does at institutions where most of the students are minors.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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