Shaftsbury principal comes under fire for alleged mishandling of reported child abuse
A clarification has been added to the story below. The incident in question took place as students were getting their things ready to leave for the JISP after-school program. It occurred at Shaftsbury Elementary, not at Bromley Mountain, where the skiing takes place. The story has been updated to avoid confusion.
SHAFTSBURY — Many members of the community were in attendance for Wednesday's meeting of the Shaftsbury School Board, with some going so far as to call for Principal Jeff Johnson's resignation in relation to a failure to report a January incident to the Department of Children and Families.
A child reported to Johnson that she had been made uncomfortable after being touched on the butt and hip by an adult volunteer while students were preparing to leave for an afterschool program. A group of concerned parents have demanded action from the school, asking why the incident was not reported to DCF and why the parents of the child were not notified of the incident in a timely manner.
The first resident to speak was Glen Matunas. "I am deeply troubled by the school's response regarding this matter," he said. "The parents of the child were not notified in a timeframe that could be considered appropriate by anybody with a heartbeat, nor was it ever reported to the DCF by any school official in a timely manner."
Matunas said it is important that all events are reported to DCF, even if they seem insignificant to the staff, as they can help establish a pattern if an individual is accused repeatedly.
"What the heck is the principal thinking?" he asked. "I've read the Vermont state statute on the subject, and it was clearly violated by the school and its representatives. I have serious concern about the principal's handling of the matter, to the point that I wonder if my child is secure under his supervision. The next few years of my child's time at this school will be uncomfortable for me as a parent. I have no reasonable expectation that the safety and wellbeing of the children in this school is the number one priority. It seems that the concern was for the identity of the adult. I wonder how the principal would feel if it was his daughter, and no call was made.
"(Principal) Jeff Johnson decided the law didn't apply to him, or had no understanding of it," Matunas continued, then addressing Johnson directly, "You have lost my respect and my trust, please resign."
Another resident, Michael Biddy, also called for Johnson's resignation.
The statute in question is Title 33, Chapter 49, Subchapter 2, Section 4913, "Reporting child abuse and neglect; remedial action." It reads that all mandated reporters, a class of individual that includes school employees, "who reasonably suspects abuse or neglect of a child shall report in accordance with the provisions of section 4914 of this title within 24 hours of the time information regarding the suspected abuse or neglect was first received or observed." Section 4914 details who the report must be submitted to, in this case either DCF or a law enforcement officer.
In a letter from the superintendent to the family of the child, written as a follow-up to a January 29 meeting between the superintendent, Johnson, and the family, which was submitted to the Banner, SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen writes, "I stated at the meeting that I believe the principal was in error in not contacting you, once he was aware of the situation that transpired on January 12, 2016. Mr. Johnson has apologized to you and he is aware of my expectations moving forward. As a parent and educator it disappoints me to learn the specifics of how and when you were informed of the incident involving your daughter. Please remember that in our meeting I informed you that any disciplinary action I take in a personnel action would be confidential. Concerning the principal's role as a mandated reporter, Mr. Johnson is required to report to DCF if in his mind he reasonably suspects child neglect or abuse. His investigation and that of the Act 1 trainer in his building did not come to that conclusion.
"I have considered the reporting to DCF and the notification of the incident to you and your wife as separate issues," Culkeen continued. "Based on the information I have, I believe the principal's action in not reporting to DCF appropriate. The principal's action of not notifying you in a timely manner was not proper procedure, and is a topic I will review with all administrators in the SVSU to prevent a repeat lapse in the process that should be followed."
Beth Sausville, district director for DCF, also weighed in on the incident in a letter. She wrote: "As you are aware, there is some personal judgement involved with regards to reporting incidents of child abuse and neglect, but DCF always advises our mandated reporters to, when in doubt, report."
Sausville said she has offered in-person training for faculty and staff at the school.
Noreen Gardner, a substitute teacher at Shaftsbury, was the next to speak. "I have nothing but great respect for our principal," she said, "I think he is a wonderful administrator."
She said she has a child in the school, and never feels they are unsafe. She said the incident occurred during the Junior Instructional Snowsports Program, which is not overseen by the school, and likened the situation to holding Johnson responsible for something that happened at a sleepover at a friend's house.
"I am a mandated reporter, and I have to face situations every day that involve making reports. It's not as easy as some people make it out to be. Maybe it was mishandled, I don't know," she continued, "but what I do know, is that I would like the person who is perfect to stand up and say they've never mishandled a situation. Is there a person in this room who could say you've never mishandled, misjudged, made a mistake? Because I want to talk to you and get your autograph. Because you will be the only person I've ever met who has not made a mistake. The administration of this school is a thankless job... If you want to get rid of Jeff, to demand his resignation, are you convinced that the next person that comes in will be any better? This is almost like a marriage. You hired him, we hired him, and now there are a few issues, and we need to work them out, not throw him out and think we're going to get another person."
After Gardner finished speaking, the majority of those in the room gave her a round of applause.
Mike Foley, one of the parents who raised concern about the school's handling of the incident, pointed out that Gardiner is related to Johnson through his wife.
"I'm going to apologize to you, because things were not done in a timely manner," Board Chairman Fran Kinney said to the child's parent, who was in attendance at the meeting, but will not be named in the interest of protecting the child's identity. "I think a mistake was made. I don't know how dramatic that was, because the board is not privy to some of these things."
He said the superintendent is arranging for additional training this summer for staff members on the mandated reporter law. "I hope you accept our apology. I don't know if it does any good, maybe it doesn't, but there's not a person sitting at this table who isn't concerned about all the kids, your daughter included."
He said the board takes matters like this very seriously, but he isn't sure what more can be done, besides ensuring that something like this does not happen again.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.
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