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Schools highlight importance of reporting abuse
Legal and DFCS advice, training follow last springs SHS arrests
W Charles Wilson

    After three arrests that shook Statesboro High School in April and May, Bulloch County Schools officials have taken steps through the summer and continuing this fall to stress to principals and teachers how they must follow reporting requirements for suspected child abuse, including sexual abuse.
    Referring to a “heightened awareness on mandated reporting” from last spring, Superintendent Charles Wilson updated Board of Education members at their most recent meeting.
    “Mandated reporting has always been an issue. It’s in state statute, it’s in our board policy, it’s in our board procedures,” Wilson said. “However, we found the need to check to make sure everything was squared away.”
    On April 30 and May 1, respectively, two Statesboro High School assistant coaches, Jeffery Tyler Crowder, 25, and Luke Edward Parks, 26, were booked by Statesboro police on felony charges for alleged inappropriate relationships with 16-year-old female students. Crowder was charged with sexual assault; Parks, with sexual assault and sexual exploitation of children.
    Police on May 9 charged Dr. Marty Waters, 41, who had been Statesboro High’s principal for nine years, with failure to report child abuse, a misdemeanor, after allegedly being told of Crowder’s involvement with a student in March.
    Waters entered a “not guilty” plea in June. All three cases are still pending in Bulloch County Superior Court.
    Placed on administrative leave the day of his arrest, Waters resigned after Wilson did not offer him a contract for the 2014-15 school year. Two Board of Education members voted against approving principals’ contracts with Waters left out, but the board later unanimously accepted his resignation, which took effect June 30.
    In a June public statement, Wilson promised that training events for the new school year would stress the importance of protecting students and employees from misconduct and “infuse what we have learned from recent events.”

Policy review

    During the summer, school officials met with the district attorney “to review our policies and procedures and make sure everything was like it should be, and it is,” Wilson told the board Sept. 11.
    As he explained in an email last week, Wilson, Board of Education attorney Susan Cox and school system Social Work Coordinator Dionne Gamble met June 19 with Ogeechee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Richard Mallard and Assistant District Attorney Daphne Totten.
    Asked about this in person, Mallard said that his and Totten’s role was to assist the school officials in understanding how the state law is applied, rather than directly reviewing the board’s policy.
    Wilson also referred to several meetings involving principals and counselors to make them aware of state requirements on mandated reporting. This led to further meetings after more awareness resulted in more questions, he told the board.
    Wilson had met with principals July 23 “to re-communicate expectations and clarify concerns about their professional and leadership duties,” he said in his emailed reply to the Statesboro Herald. The superintendent had also talked about mandated reporting, in terms of the statewide Code of Ethics for Educators and a “responsibility to protect children in our care, along with the clarification of zero tolerance toward this violation,” at the July 25 convocation for all school system employees.
    The same message was addressed specifically to new employees at their orientation session July 22, Wilson said.
    Bulloch County Department of Family and Children Services Director Diane Hardee was also part of some meetings with school officials, including one with Wilson and Gamble on Aug. 14 and another, where Cox and Hardee talked with principals or their designees, Aug. 29. This meeting dealt with questions about how the DFCS office handles mandated reporting.
    “Ms. Hardee was very helpful and gave her personal cell phone number to principals and counselors to provide them with quick access to her if they had questions on how to handle a matter that was not straightforward or required further clarification,” Wilson said.
    Georgia law requires that principals, teachers and counselors report any reasonable suspicion of child abuse to the Department of Family and Children Services. If DFCS is not available, the report is to be made to police or a district attorney’s office. The same reporting mandate applies to other professionals, such as doctors and nurses, social workers and police, who may see evidence of child abuse in their work.
    Under the Board of Education policy, teachers and other school employees are supposed to report to their principal, or one person at each school designated by the principal, who then has the responsibility to make an oral report to DFCS “immediately, but in no case later than 24 hours,” followed by a written report, also to DFCS.
    The Bulloch County Schools have a “Report of Suspected Child Abuse” form for the principal or designee to file at the Board of Education office. The current form and the employee handbook state that it is to go to Gamble, the social worker.
    This “internal report” form is intended for the social worker to use in following up with DFCS, Wilson and Hayley Greene, the school system’s public relations specialist, said last week.
    “All principals and their designees know that the initial report is always to (DFCS) within 24 hours,” Greene said in an email. “The law, Code of Ethics, and Board policy are clear on this. Where we did make it clearer in training was that a follow up to our social worker needs to be made within 48 hours.”
    Wilson confirmed that the distinction between the immediate report to DFCS and the follow-up report to the social worker was a point emphasized during this year’s training and updates for teachers. But it was also emphasized last year, he said. Fine print on the current form states that it was last updated July 22, 2013.

Continued training

    As a further step in the new emphasis on mandated reported, Wilson and the board had Cox, the school system attorney, go to each school to conduct training on the state Code of Ethics for Educators for all employees.
    “We have spent extra time on the mandated reporting requirements,” Wilson emailed. “I have attended most of these updates with Ms. Cox. We expect to conclude with this training by the end of September.”
    They are also working on making a recording of a training session to put on the Bulloch County Schools’ website, he said.
    Although Wilson did not make this part a commitment, he said school officials might decide to hold future meetings to inform high school students of the accountability that everyone, including “students, parents, school system employees” has in relation to suspected child abuse.
    Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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