It’s beginning to feel a bit like Groundhog Day around here when it comes to school officials’ failure to follow the law around mandatory reporting. After a two month investigation, a Providence elementary school principal has been arrested for failure to follow mandatory reporting laws despite her knowledge of alleged abuse of 11 year old girls their PE teacher. Let’s remember that back in April, Good School Hunting featured a story about a local high school counselor who had been arrested for violating the state’s mandatory reporting laws when he failed to report a student’s allegations of sexual abuse by a science teacher at Cranston West High School.
Dan McGowan of WPRI has been all over this story. Here is a bit of his reporting on the latest arrest:
The principal at Harry Kizirian Elementary School was charged Tuesday with failing to contact the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families after learning that a child at the school had accused a physical education teacher of touching her inappropriately.
Violet LeMar entered a not guilty plea in Providence 6th District Court on Tuesday morning. She turned herself into Providence police earlier in the day. A spokesperson for the school department confirmed LeMar has been placed on administrative leave.
And from a McGowan story yesterday:
In the days after a Providence elementary school teacher was placed on leave for allegedly touching a student inappropriately, at least six school department employees who were aware of the allegations failed to contact the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families, Target 12 has learned.
School department emails obtained through a public records request show the six employees – including several administrators – were made aware of a written statement from a student regarding Harry Kizirian Elementary School teacher James Duffy on May 11, two days after he was placed on administrative leave.
Rhode Island law requires anyone who has reasonable cause to know or suspect that a child has been the victim of sexual abuse to report it to DCYF within 24 hours, but the school department has said none of its employees contacted the agency regarding the allegations against Duffy.
Despite the school’s failure, Duffy was arrested in June and charged with five counts of 2nd degree child molestation involving three 11 year old girls. The police were first notified directly by one of the girl’s parents, not by school personnel.
One of the most baffling and appalling parts of this story is what appeared in the subject line of the first email sent regarding this very serious situation.
In an email with the subject line “Parent Concern” sent at 9:14 a.m. on May 11, one employee explained that a student’s mother came to the school and handed in a written statement from her child claiming Duffy touched the child inappropriately during lunch. The employee said a school social worker was made aware of the incident because the “student is struggling with the situation.” (WPRI)
Umm. This wasn’t an issue of siblings being assigned to different buses or picture day being scheduled the same day as a pep rally or a supply list that contains items that are impossible to find at Staples. This was about an allegation by a young girl of sexual abuse in an elementary school cafeteria by one of her teachers. This is an emergency. A “the house is on fire” moment.
It is most definitely not an email about a parent concern.
Let’s remember: DCYF must be notified within 24 hours and all of the people with knowledge of the allegation had an obligation to ensure that happened. But no one followed the law. And DCYF wasn’t notified until after a parent went to the police herself.
A Look Back
Here’s an excerpt from the piece from April 5th:
Cranston West High School is the latest school here in Rhode Island to make news for a teacher allegedly abusing a student and the story gets worse by the day. Not only has a science teacher with a history of similar incidents in the past been arrested on twelve counts of second-degree sexual assault, but it turns out that a school psychologist had ample reason to suspect the abuse, yet chose to stay silent. He too has been arrested.
And from the Providence Journal at the time:
The investigation revealed that the same student “had previously reported the assault to a school psychologist identified as George Blessing on or about February 1.”
Blessing allegedly failed to report these allegations of sexual assault and did not divulge this information until school administrators and detectives approached him on March 24, according to Winquist. (Projo 4/4/17)
Yes, in a “you can’t make this stuff up” kind of way, the counselor’s name is Mr. Blessing.
Houston, we have a problem. Except it’s not Houston. It’s here. Well, in fairness, it’s everywhere. But we now have two arrests in our little state in less than six months of school personnel (including a counselor for God’s sake!) being asleep at the switch when it comes to protecting children.
Add to that our legislature who continues to think our consent laws (that allow teachers and students sixteen or older to engage in sexual relationships) are just dandy and we have a lot of house cleaning to do.
At the end of the day, education is supposed to be about student outcomes: their academic growth and their development and well-being as people. But if children aren’t safe in school (even around the adults in charge), then the system has failed them before they even open a book.
Nothing will change until we, as parents and Rhode Islanders, make our voices heard. These stories may not be about your child or grandchild or niece or neighbor.
But what if they were?