State education officials voted unanimously Tuesday to reinstate the license of a Wichita teacher who lost her job after allegedly waiting too long to report suspected child abuse.
It appears unlikely, however, that Donna Ford, a kindergarten teacher at Cleaveland Traditional Magnet Elementary for 17 years, will return to her classroom anytime soon.
“Ms. Ford is no longer an employee with the Wichita Public Schools,” district spokeswoman Susan Arensman wrote in an e-mail Tuesday, adding that Ford’s resignation is still in effect.
“We will not discuss the matter any further because it is a personnel issue,” Arensman wrote. “However, we expect all teachers to comply with the law and report suspected child abuse on the same day.”
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Ford surrendered her license last month to the Kansas Department of Education, a condition of her resignation, which also included early-retirement benefits from the Wichita district.
According to a letter signed by Ford, the resignation and license surrender were “a result of allegations that I delayed reporting alleged sexual abuse for a period of two weeks.”
The State Board of Education voted at the time to accept Ford’s surrender and revoke her license.
But late last week, Ford petitioned the state board to reconsider. During its meeting Tuesday, board members voted 10-0, without discussion, to reinstate her license.
Walt Chappell, a state board member from Wichita, said he thinks Wichita district officials acted rashly and unfairly when they urged Ford to resign and surrender her license.
“I hope the (Wichita) school board and (USD) 259 will take a very serious look at what was imposed on this teacher,” Chappell said.
“She acted immediately to inform her superiors when she suspected abuse. She got the ball rolling to get the child protected … and despite technical difficulties and other issues, she made the report,” he said.
“I do hope they will reinstate her contract and get her back in the classroom as an example of the way teachers should be treated.”
Ron Lyon, Ford’s attorney, said he was glad the state board voted to reinstate the teacher’s license.
“We were hoping for it and expected it,” Lyon said. “Now any dispute USD 259 has with Donna Ford will be addressed in a fact-finding venue of some sort.”
Lyon said that by requesting state officials to reinstate her license, Ford violated the terms of her earlier settlement with the district.
“When a contract is breached by either side, the parties are returned to the position they were in prior to the execution of the contract,” Lyon said Tuesday. “That would mean in my opinion that Donna is still on the payroll. I suppose we will wait and see what the legal minds with the district think.”
Under the terms of Ford’s agreement with the district, she surrendered her license without involving the Professional Practices Commission, a body that investigates cases of alleged professional misconduct and makes recommendations to the State Board of Education.
Education officials said Ford’s case marks the first time a Kansas teacher has resigned and surrendered her license as a consequence of allegedly taking too long to report suspected abuse.
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.
Details of Ford’s case — including when and how she first suspected a student was being abused and why a report may have been delayed — have not been made public.
Sources familiar with the case said Ford informed the Cleaveland Elementary principal, social worker and counselor of her suspicions that a 6-year-old girl in her class was being abused by a teenager living in the child’s home.
Ford was following a co-worker’s instruction to file a report online to state officials, sources said, and 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.
Arensman, the district spokeswoman, said in the e-mail Tuesday, “A delay of one day is not acceptable, let alone a delay of nearly two weeks. … We take these matters seriously for the safety of our students.”
She said district policy requires employees to notify the building principal promptly if they suspect abuse, but that doing so “is not a substitute for the employee reporting the suspicion to the proper authorities.”
“It is important for the person who received the information to make the report directly to SRS as they have the most information,” Arensman said in the e-mail. “For the safety of our students, we train employees about their responsibility to report, not to investigate, suspected abuse.”
Lyon, Ford’s attorney, said the teacher decided to ask for her license back because “she realized the long-term ramifications of surrendering her Kansas teaching credentials.”
“Any financial benefit she might have been granted by the school board, any early-retirement benefits that were protected, we believe she can far offset by simply working her remaining years,” he said.
Asked about Ford’s plans for the future, Lyon said, “She’s a dedicated teacher. She did not want to walk away from her profession.
“I believe this (reinstatement) returns USD 259 and Donna Ford back to square one … and we welcome that.”