SHAFTSBURY >> A group of concerned citizens spoke at the Shaftsbury School Board meeting last week, concerned by an apparent lack of response to allegations that a students was touched inappropriately by an adult at the school. School officials say that policy is being reviewed, but that they believe the situation was handled appropriately.
"I know there was an incident, dating back to mid-January, of a child complaining of being touched by an adult in school," said Shaftsbury resident Mike Foley, "I want to make sure that there's a protocol, not a review of protocol. Mandated reporter laws are pretty clear. State investigators recommend that mandated reporters report, they don't do investigations. There's subjectivity involved, and the training to do investigations is done by (the Department of Children and Families). DCF does investigations." He continued that he did not trust anyone at the school to be performing investigations, and that Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union policy should be updated to clearly state that DCF be notified as soon as an incident is reported, so that they can perform their own investigation.
"I've been talking to the superintendent," responded board chairman Fran Kinney, "and we're going to get together, and we're going to have a solution for it, and make sure everything is kosher. I can't talk to you about it right now, but this is in the works."
Foley said that he didn't see why a discussion was necessary, and that the law is clear and the change should be made now. Kinney said that there were still things that needed to be reviewed, but that the issue would most likely appear on the agenda for the board's May meeting.
Vermont mandated reporter law requires that, "If you reasonably suspect child abuse or neglect, you are legally required to make a report to our Family Services Division (FSD) — within 24 hours of the time you first received or observed information about the suspected abuse/neglect," according to DCF.
Principal Jeff Johnson replied to a question from a different audience member, who did not identify himself, saying that all staff and students are given training to identify potential child abuse, in accordance with Act 1 of 2010. He said a parent night is also offered every year to familiarize parents with the legislation.
Board member Jeffrey Leake pointed out the dangers of implementing policies that are not well thought out. He brought up, as an example, mandatory reporting to parents if a child makes an accusation of sexual abuse, which would seem to some like a common sense policy. However, if one of the parents is the one being accused of committing the assault, a policy such as that one could tie the school's hands and put the child in further danger.
Superintendent Jim Culkeen described SVSU policy as "a living document," and said that the regulations are constantly being updated and improved. "Every time we have an incident we review what happened and what needs to be changed," he said, clarifying that protocol is typically not written out in policy, but in administrative regulations that are written based on the policies, "As with that incident, or any other incident, we'll review and make changes. That's what we mean by 'a living document.' It's always in flux, always changing."
"I'm worried by what I'm hearing here," said Shaftsbury resident Billy Obenauer, "I'm hearing that everybody has the correct training, everybody knows the (phone) numbers, everybody knows the proper procedure, but from what I'm hearing, it sounds like the correct process wasn't followed. As a parent, I'm very concerned about that, and the fact that you're going to re- look at protocol doesn't comfort me, because, from what I'm hearing, everybody knows the law and who to contact, and that didn't happen."
"I don't want to get into the details of this in public meeting," said Culkeen, "I think there are questions. You're going to get different opinions on whether protocol was performed accordingly and if the process happened. I believe that it has, but I can't go into specific details in public meeting."
The Shaftsbury School Board meets the second Wednesday of every month at 6:30 p.m. in the library at Shaftsbury Elementary School. Full recordings of their meetings are available on Catamount Access Television, and on the station's YouTube page.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.