Crime & Courts

April 27, 2012

Teen faces indecent-liberties charges in case that cost teacher her license

A case of suspected child abuse that led to a Wichita teacher losing her license has resulted in criminal charges against a teenager who allegedly molested a young student.

A case of suspected child abuse that led to a Wichita teacher losing her license has resulted in criminal charges against a teenager who allegedly molested a young student.

According to court records, a 15-year-old boy was charged Feb. 2 in juvenile court with aggravated indecent liberties with a 6-year-old child. The boy, who was ordered to home-based supervision, will make his next court appearance May 9.

Wichita police officers involved in the investigation did not release other details of the alleged crime, including when or how it was reported to authorities. But court records list Donna Ford, the former kindergarten teacher, as a state witness.

Ford, who taught at Cleaveland Traditional Magnet Elementary School for 17 years, had her teaching license revoked earlier this month because officials said she suspected child abuse and didn’t report it quickly enough.

Some state education officials, parents and colleagues have rallied around Ford and criticized the Wichita school district, saying her punishment was too severe. They also have questioned whether other school employees whom Ford told of her suspicions should have been disciplined for not reporting.

But Wichita school board member Lynn Rogers said this week that he thinks the outcome was fair and appropriate.

“I have not heard anything from anybody other than people can’t believe it would take somebody 17 days to report a child abuse situation,” Rogers said. “That’s the thing most people are pretty upset about.”

Kansas law requires teachers, doctors, counselors and other mandatory reporters to inform law enforcement or the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services if they suspect a child has been abused. Wichita district policy requires employees to report “on the same day suspicion arises.”

“The safety of our kids is very, very important, and I think every employee knows that and understands that,” Rogers said.

With this case, “We’re saying that when something like that happens, it’s a very serious thing.”

Ford has declined to comment, citing a condition of her agreement with district officials as part of her resignation with early-retirement benefits.

Sources familiar with the case said Ford was following a co-worker’s instruction to file a report online to state officials, and that her school computer malfunctioned while trying to submit it. It is unclear whether Ford or other employees tried to report suspicions via a 24-hour telephone hotline.

Parents, others upset

Shana Hill, a Cleaveland Elementary parent with a daughter in Ford’s class, said she was “in tears” when she and other parents received a letter from the principal on Feb. 24 saying Ford had left the school for “personal reasons.”

She said she feared Ford was ill or experiencing a family crisis because of the sudden departure.

“To me, she’s just one of the most awesome teachers they have,” said Hill, a mother of eight. Her daughter is the fifth of her children to have Ford as a kindergarten teacher.

Since news broke about Ford’s license being revoked and the reasons behind it, Hill and several other parents and former colleagues began speaking out on Facebook and elsewhere to defend the teacher.

“There’s not a minute in my mind I think she would put any child in danger or not do exactly what she was supposed to do,” said Shelley Holland, whose three children were past students of Ford’s.

Holland, whose oldest son has had two heart transplants and was medically fragile as a child, said she shopped around and “interviewed” kindergarten teachers before settling on Ford.

“I literally trusted her with my child’s life, and she never let me down,” she said. “I can’t help but think the system failed in some way. She’s supposed to have a support system. Where was it?”

Edie Youts, a former colleague of Ford’s who retired from Cleaveland four years ago and worked as a substitute teacher until last year, said the district’s actions against Ford have worsened an already “scary atmosphere” among teachers at that school and elsewhere.

“Teachers are feeling very lonely and scared,” Youts said. “That was a very small, very close staff. We were like family, and that’s what you really have to do to succeed.

“Now teachers are afraid to say anything, afraid to make a wrong move. I had a teacher tell me during plan time to go to my room, close the door, turn off the lights and stay to myself to stay out of trouble. That’s just not right.”

Jim Johnson, the Cleaveland principal, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Reporting requirement ‘meant to be liberating’

Deputy District Attorney Marc Bennett, who supervises prosecution of sex crimes in Sedgwick County, said he couldn’t comment specifically about the case involving the 6-year-old victim. But he reiterated the importance of teachers and others reporting any suspected abuse as soon as possible.

“I worry about the collateral damage of good intentions,” Bennett said. Often people who suspect abuse, particularly sexual abuse, will delay reporting it because they’re not 100 percent sure and don’t want to risk filing a false report.

“The mandated reporting statute does not require reporters to be investigators. It simply requires them to report,” he said. “It’s meant to be liberating … to let the experts in these sorts of crimes do the investigating.

“I would encourage anybody, no matter the endeavor, to at least report” suspected abuse, Bennett said. “Just because you report it doesn’t mean a person’s life is going to be upended. … But to not tell is a disservice to the child.”

Wichita school board member Barbara Fuller, a retired teacher, said she has received several calls from people angry about Ford’s case.

“It’s a very touchy situation, and a lot of people are out there and they don’t have all the information,” she said.

Regardless of the details of that case, Fuller said, “I’m sure that policies (regarding mandated reporting) need to be reviewed. … It’s not a bad idea to review it and make sure everyone truly understands the way the policy works.”

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