April 18, 2012

Wichita teacher loses license over alleged late reporting of suspected abuse

A Wichita teacher had her license revoked this week after allegedly failing to report suspected child sexual abuse quickly enough, and some education officials say the punishment was too severe.

A Wichita teacher had her license revoked this week after allegedly failing to report suspected child sexual abuse quickly enough, and some education officials say the punishment was too severe.

“It’s an absolute atrocity,” said Walt Chappell, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education from Wichita. “What this does is send a shiver down the spine of every teacher in the state.

“Here’s someone who is concerned about children and wants to protect children,” said Chappell, who said he has spoken with both the teacher and her lawyer. “And … they ran her through the wringer over something where she was trying to do her best.”

Donna L. Ford, 51, a kindergarten teacher at Cleaveland Elementary School, surrendered her teaching license to the state board, which voted 6-2 on Tuesday to accept the surrender and revoke Ford’s license. She had been a teacher for 17 years.

Chappell and board member Sue Storm voted against the measure. Janet Waugh abstained, saying she did not have enough information to cast an informed vote.

According to a letter Ford submitted to the state Department of Education in March, she surrendered her license as a condition of her resignation with early-retirement benefits.

The resignation was “a result of allegations that I delayed reporting alleged sexual abuse for a period of two weeks,” she said in the letter.

Kansas law requires teachers, doctors, counselors and other mandatory reporters to inform the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services or law enforcement agencies if they suspect a child has been abused.

Wichita district policy requires all employees to report suspected abuse by phone to state officials “on the same day the suspicion arises.”

District officials said they could not comment about specifics of the case because it is a personnel matter, said spokeswoman Susan Arensman.

Ford also declined to comment.

“I cannot talk to you,” she said Wednesday. “I have lawyers, and it’s confidential, and I cannot say anything.”

David Moses, the Wichita lawyer representing Ford, could not be reached for comment.

Other attorneys and others familiar with the case say this is the first time a Kansas teacher has had his or her license revoked for allegedly taking too long to report suspected abuse.

“I’d like to think that it’s because reports (of suspected abuse) are being made” in a timely manner, said Kevin Ireland, general counsel for the state Department of Education.

Ireland said state officials and board members “are not privy to the details, and it’s a personnel matter” between Ford and the Wichita district. Tuesday’s decision to revoke her license was based solely on her letter surrendering the license, he said.

But David Schauner, general counsel for the Kansas National Education Association, said Ford’s punishment – the probable end of her teaching career – is too severe.

“I’ve done this work now for 33 years, and I’ve never seen a school district do what they did in this case,” Schauner said.

He said he couldn’t divulge specifics about the case because of attorney-client privilege and the conditions of Ford’s agreement with the district. But, “It is not what it might appear at first blush,” he said.

“There are some rather substantial extenuating circumstances that took place” between the time Ford first suspected a student was being abused and when she reported it to authorities, Schauner said.

District policy

Recent high-profile cases like the one at Penn State, where a former coach is charged with sexually abusing young boys, have prompted some states and school districts to expand mandatory reporting requirements or strengthen the penalty for failure to report cases of suspected abuse.

Every year in the Wichita district, about 1,200 cases of suspected abuse are reported by teachers, school social workers and other employees, said Loren Pack, coordinator of social work services for the district.

At the start of each school year district employees get a memo reminding them of their duties as mandatory reporters, along with the suggested procedure and numbers to call if they suspect abuse, Pack said. New teachers get more extensive training as part of orientation, he said.

“The main thing we emphasize is that if you suspect, you report,” he said. “The law is not going to hold you accountable for turning something in.”

In practice, though, situations are much trickier, said Schauner, the KNEA attorney.

“This whole reporting business is a bit problematic, and it makes teachers very nervous,” he said.

Sometimes teachers are afraid of being wrong or of making things worse for the child, he said. Sometimes they fear that angry parents will find out who made the report and retaliate.

“Nobody wants anybody to be abused physically or mentally, but at the same time you’re generally relying on something other than first-hand information,” Schauner said. “You make judgments based on a report, an inference or a behavior that could … have tremendous consequences.”

Vicky Roper, director of Prevent Child Abuse Kansas, said her organization tries to keep directions clear and simple for teachers and other mandatory reporters – and anyone else who suspects abuse.

“If they suspect abuse or neglect they need to report it,” she said. “We all need to come together around kids and do what’s in the best interest of kids.”

If a teacher tells another teacher or administrator that she suspects a child is being abused, that person also should report the incident to authorities, she said. Teachers don’t have to investigate or know all the facts to make a report.

Wichita district policy requires employees to notify their building principal “promptly” of their suspicion. But that notification “does not substitute for the employee reporting the suspicion to the proper authorities” as required by state law, the policy says.

Under state law, failure to make a report is a Class B misdemeanor that could result in a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail.

Chappell said the Wichita district’s demand that Ford surrender her teaching license and the state board’s revocation of the license was “monumental.”

“I’m hopeful we can somehow get another look at this,” he said Wednesday. “It’s insane for the state board, with so little information, to blindly make a decision that takes away this person’s entire career.”

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