New SVSU reporting of abuse policy draft presented

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BENNINGTON — The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's policy committee met for the first time this school year and continued to try to iron out edits to the sexual abuse reporting policy.

The policy in question, #5005 "Reporting of Child and Vulnerable Adult Abuse, Sexual Abuse, and Sexual Violence," is a drafted update to the previous policy, which had not been updated since 2001. The policy was previously titled "Child Abuse and Neglect." The draft was written by committee members Bruce Lee-Clark, representing the Career Development Center, and Holly Bahan, representing Shaftsbury. The discussion appeared down on the agenda for Monday's meeting, but after community members and board members brought issue with that fact, it was raised to the top.

"The policy that has currently been passed by all the boards is not adequate to meet the statutory requirements," said Lee-Clark, "and the problem comes in a couple of ways. The legislature changed the legislation in the last couple of years. They made it more clear because schools had been having difficulty complying. There had been chain of command issues."

The new policy, if adopted, would read, "Any employee or district contracted personnel who regularly is employed or paid by the District to provide student services for five or more hours per week during the school year ("School Employee") AND who has reasonable cause to believe that a child's physical or mental health or welfare has been or is being harmed or abused or that the child is threatened with harm, or that the child is a victim of neglect or a victim of child sexual abuse or sexual violence, is required to report or cause a report to be made within 24 hours to the Commissioner of The Department For Children And Families ("DCF") or his/her designee. If a report involves the acts or omissions of DCF, then such a report shall be directed to the Secretary of the Agency of Human Services. Ultimately, the School Employee is responsible to ensure that the report is made to DCF within 24 hours even when the school employee has informed a building administrator or any other person in the school. A School Employee may not refuse to make a report required by this section on the grounds that making the report would violate a privilege or disclose a confidential communication."

Citizens called for change to the policy after an incident in Shaftsbury earlier this year, when Principal Jeff Johnson was told of an alleged incident in which a volunteer inappropriately touched a student. Johnson, after investigating, did not report the incident. Superintendent Jim Culkeen said during a meeting that he felt policy had been followed, but that he understood where others could disagree.

Lee-Clark said the new policy makes it clear that no one at the school should be performing an investigation, and that it is not the principal's sole responsibility to contact DCF when abuse is suspected. The policy also lays out provisions for how all school district employees shall be educated about proper reporting practices annually. The previous policy also did not touch upon reporting abuse of vulnerable adults.

"I have a tendency to believe that we, as education professionals, or as professionals in general, tend to think we're really good at doing all that investigative stuff," said Lee-Clark, "this at least tries to tell us, 'No, do not do investigations.'" He said the DCF prefers that calls be made based on any suspicion, and that they will do an investigation and determine whether or not the suspicion is warranted. "If I have any beliefs," he said, "I make a report and let DCF handle that issue."

Once a policy draft comes out of committee, it must be warned and approved by all seven boards of the SVSU. This process generally takes several months.

"All staff are required to report these issues, no matter where they see them, no matter who they are," said Lee-Clark, "because we are mandated reporters."

Contact Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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