LITTLE ROCK — An Arkansas law requires school officials to report suspected sexual abuse of children to law enforcement, but the law does not specifically mention coaches and provides only misdemeanor penalties for violations.

LITTLE ROCK — An Arkansas law requires school officials to report suspected sexual abuse of children to law enforcement, but the law does not specifically mention coaches and provides only misdemeanor penalties for violations.

The issue — a hot topic in light of the Penn State scandal, in which former football coach Joe Paterno reported a possible case of child rape to his superiors but not to police — came up Wednesday during a joint meeting of the House and Senate Committees on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs.

Debbie Roark, investigations administrator for the Arkansas State Police’s Crimes Against Children Division, told the panel that a state law requires people in certain professions to report suspected sexual abuse of a child to law enforcement.

The law does not specifically mention coaches, but it does mention “school officials.” Lawyers for the state believe that term covers coaches at both public schools and institutions of higher education, whether employees or volunteers, Roark testified.

During the next legislative session the state Division of Children and Family Services will ask lawmakers to modify the law to add coaches specifically to the list of “mandated reporters,” she said.

Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, said colleges and universities need to know that the law applies to their coaches.

“If we don’t have that communicated to the Department of Higher Education and those institutions of higher education, then we may end up with another gap,” he said.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, asked Roark, “Is it required that we report it to the police directly or to someone who is, perhaps, our boss?”

Roark said the law requires the report to be made to the Child Abuse Hotline operated by state police.

“As I recall, if a mandated reporter fails to report they can be charged with either a felony or a misdemeanor,” said Sen. Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville.

“Yes ma’am,” said Roark.

Asked what would determine whether an offense was a felony or a misdemeanor, Roark said it would depend on the person’s profession and “the extent of the abuse.” She assured the panel that if the Penn State incident happened in Arkansas, felony charges would be filed.

In fact, under Arkansas Code 12-18-201 the most severe penalty a mandated reporter can face for failing to report suspected abuse is a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said Wednesday, when asked to explain the discrepancy, that Roark believed she was answering “a two-pronged question … with regard to knowingly making a false report to the hotline as well as the question of failure of a mandated reporter to report.”

Making a false report to the Child Abuse Hotline is a misdemeanor on first offense and a felony on a second or subsequent offense.

Earlier this year, Russell Darin Eudy, former superintendent of Abundant Life School in Sherwood, was charged with failing to report knowledge that former principal and coach Tim Ballard had a sexual relationship with at least one student. Eudy pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year of probation and fined $500. He received no jail time.

Ballard, who was accused of having sexual relationships with more than one student, pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree sexual assault and four counts of second-degree sexual assault, all felonies, and was sentenced to two months in jail and fined $1,000.

Paterno is expected to face no charges for having reported a possible case of child rape only to his superiors, prompting an outcry in Pennsylvania for stricter reporting laws. Paterno was fired after the case became public.

Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky has been charged with sexually assaulting eight boys over more than a decade. He has denied raping anyone but admitted he sometimes showered with young boys.

Madison asked Roark Wednesday, “Is there any circumstance under which a school official showering with someone underage would ever be OK?”

“Not in my mind,” Roark said.

Roark clarified later in an interview that anything that creates a reasonable suspicion of abuse would have to be reported.