The state of Vermont relies on school officials to keep kids safe. About one-quarter of all child abuse reports come from schools. But what happens when schools don't report suspected cases? A principal and superintendent in Caledonia County are facing criminal charges for failing to report suspected abuse to the state. And their case is raising questions about what's required by law.
"Just because there are charges brought does not mean they are justified," attorney Pietro Lynn said.
Lynn is fired up about charges against his client, Caledonia Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Martha Tucker. Troopers charged Tucker and Danville School Principal Noah Noyes with failing to report child abuse to the state.
"Any careful consideration of the facts of the case demonstrate that she fulfilled all of her professional duties and certainly all of her duties as a mandatory reporter," Lynn said.
Police say as mandatory reporters the school administrators had just 24 hours to notify the Department of Children and Families when a student came forward back in April alleging a teacher had touched her inappropriately. It took more than a week for DCF to find out.
"Ms. Tucker began, or the school began an investigation on the very day that the complaint was made. That they believed they did not have reasonable cause to conclude that there was either child abuse or neglect," Lynn said.
"First of all, I don't know why the school would be doing their own investigation. They had a student came forward and told them they were touched, their obligation is to then pick up the phone and call DCF," Vt. State Police Det. Lyle Decker said.
Whether there is any gray area in the 24-hour reporting rule for mandatory reporters like school administrators and health care workers depends on who you ask.
Lynn represents Tucker now, but also defended former Richford Elementary School Principal Roger Gagne three years ago when he was the first Vermont school administrator ever charged for failing to report suspected abuse to DCF. That trial ended with a hung jury.
In both cases, schools launched their own investigations to assess allegations before telling DCF. Lynn says the law gives administrators room to do that because the statute says they have to have "reasonable cause" to believe a child is abused or neglected.
"If the Legislature intended there be allegations of abuse reported every time it would have used different language and it would have applied a different standard," Lynn said.
"Our staff are trained in the dynamics of child abuse," said Karen Shea, a field director for the child protection division at the Vt. Department of Children and Families.
Shea cannot comment on specific cases but says the law is clear for mandatory reporters-- even an unsubstantiated allegation is enough to trigger a call to the state hotline.
"Their obligation is to report when they have any suspicion of abuse to a child. And that threshold is set at a low level in order to make sure that kids are protected," Shea said.
DCF takes in about 15,700 reports of abuse from all sources each year. About 11,000 are screened out as not credible; 4,700 cases are referred for investigation or assessment. And of those, about 700 abuse cases are substantiated each year.
Shea says that DCF investigators are trained to ask the right questions without harming possible criminal investigations. She also says involving DCF quickly can protect teachers and administrators from accusations of bias.
"For everyone's protection-- the child's protection but also the accused's protection-- it's really worthwhile to have an impartial look at things," Shea said.
The Danville School Board voted unanimously to support Noyes. He and Tucker are due in court next month. No abuse charges have been filed against the teacher in the alleged touching incident. Police say they're still working on that investigation.
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