A union leader’s concerns with the procedures teachers and administrators use to report suspected child abuse or neglect failed to generate discussion at a Feb. 26 Toledo Public School (TPS) Board of Education meeting.
Rather, board members focused on the three-year contract renewal of four administrative cabinet members. Board President Brenda Hill asked to delay that vote because the board is in the process of hiring a superintendent to replace Jerome Pecko when he leaves his position July 31.
At the Feb. 13 TPS Human Resources Committee (HRC) meeting, Hill brought to the committee’s attention that Don Yates, president of the Toledo Association of Administrative Personnel, had expressed concern over the number of TPS investigations, a review of how Lucas County Children Services (LCCS) caseworkers deal with referrals and the relationship between TPS and LCCS.
Cheryl Spieldenne, chief human resources officer for TPS, said in her report on the HRC meeting that Yates has expressed concern with LCCS being called in when there was an administrator involved in a child abuse or neglect investigation.
Board member Bob Vasquez, who said he has had the same responsibility to report suspected abuse and/or neglect in his professional career, reminded the committee that TPS has a policy for reporting.
“We must follow it,” Vasquez said of that policy. “If I am told that you believe a child is being abused, I have an obligation under the law to report it. It’s not up to me to do anything but report. It’s my legal obligation.”
Pecko told the committee there had been a recent change in the reporting procedure districtwide and that all reporting must now go through the superintendent’s office. He also said that there would be LCCS staff training sessions later in the year.
Yates, who did not attend the HRC meeting, said Feb. 19 that his concern centered on the training sessions Pecko said would take place.
“I am concerned with the administrative review process, especially when administrators and teachers are involved,” Yates said. “I believe there may be confusion internally as to who does what investigation. We need to be able to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, especially when administrators and teachers are involved.
“On the flip side, however, there are referrals that are legitimate and there are cases that need investigation. We want to stress education so folks know what’s an appropriate referral,” Yates said.
Choice is not an option
Dean Sparks, LCCS’s executive director, referred to state law — Ohio Revised Code Section 2151.421, which identifies “school authorities, employees and teachers” as one of 15 professions “required by law to report if they suspect or know that child abuse is occurring.”
Ohio law is clear that choice is not an option for school personnel, Sparks said. The law requires immediate reporting of any known or suspected abuse or neglect.
“This is not a union issue,” Sparks said. “This is a state law issue. Failure to make a report of any abuse that should reasonably be suspected is a misdemeanor punishable by jail time and a fine.
“Let me couple this by saying we get lots of reports about a variety of people who care for children, like teachers, preachers, scout leaders, day care providers and foster parents, that never turn out to be true. So to say that it could be a career-ender for someone reporting [the suspicion of abuse or neglect] is a misnomer. It could be if somebody’s abusing children, and if they’re abusing children, we want it to be a career-ender.”
Sparks said all reports are confidential by law and LCCS does not disclose who made the report without that person’s consent.
Once investigated, Sparks said that cases are deemed “unsubstantiated,” “substantiated” or “indicated.”
Sparks said most letters that come across his desk are “unsubstantiated” allegations. “So that, in itself, is a protection for that educator,” he said.
“Anybody can say anything they want about any of us. And if we conduct an investigation and said it didn’t happen, then that never happened. That seems to me to be some protection from civil and personal liability for that person.
“And for everybody who goes through an investigation of child abuse or neglect as a perpetrator, it’s really uncomfortable. We understand that. There’s no way that we can ask those questions [comfortably]. But it really is for the protection of everyone.”
Sparks said in more than 70 percent of the cases referred to LCCS, “we find that it has not reached the level of abuse and neglect. “And that’s not just for teachers. That’s all together.”
No child in jeopardy
Yates further qualified his concerns Feb. 26.
“In years past, we’ve had speakers come in from [LCCS] to meet with school counselors, to make sure that teachers and principals and everybody is real clear about reporting requirements,” he said. “To me, that’s just a good way of making sure that no child is in jeopardy because somebody wasn’t sure or somebody had a question about a situation and they didn’t know who to contact. To me, that’s just a good of having a solid relationship between two organizations in charge of kids.”
Prior to 2009, Yates worked as a school assistant center coordinator, supervising counselors, special education teachers and psychologists. In that job, Yates said he was “pretty well plugged into” districtwide child abuse and neglect professional development classes.
“I’m not aware that we’ve done that recently,” Yates said. “At a Human Resources Committee meeting, I made the comment that I think it’s time to set that up again just to make sure that everybody knows what the requirements are.”
In other business, the board agreed to pay the $22 fee for all employees Ohio Attorney General Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) background checks at a cost of $63,140 to the district. The 3-2 vote approving this move was predicted by Cecelia Adams, board vice president, during the Feb. 13 Finance Committee meeting. Responsibility for the FBI background check will remain with the employee.
However, in presenting her committee report to the full board, Adams did not mention the 42-minute background check discussion that took place in the Finance Committee meeting. She asked the board to approve the related items in a bundle.
Before her motion could be seconded, Vasquez asked Adams why she had not disclosed the committee’s decision to bring the background check item to the board without a recommendation for a full discussion at the regular board meeting.
Adams said current TPS policy requires both; that in 2008, the decision to pay for both background checks was an emergency issue; and that she did not think there would be a need to do anything if that policy is to stay the same.
“Basically it is the responsibility of the employee,” she said.
Board member Lisa Sobecki immediately disagreed with Adams, saying that TPS should pay for the BCI background check and the employee should pay for the FBI background check. Sobecki cited the timeliness of the issue, saying employees “need to know when they come to work tomorrow what they will be expected to do.”
Sobecki also questioned whether the board had actually made the decision in 2008 or whether “this understanding may have been an administrative decision that was never brought to the board.”
Sobecki said she asked at the Jan. 22 board meeting that payment for background checks be put on the HRC agenda to be examined.
“Through discussion, HR discovered there was a policy issued and they had to look at whether they were going to change policy because the law had changed,” Sobecki said. “I, as a board member, said, ‘Wait a second. I was on the board at that time. I don’t recall this coming from the board. If it had, can someone show me? Is there a memorandum of understanding with your bargaining units? Was that agreement known to folks through a memorandum of understanding?’
“I don’t know if there’s one out there or not. One was not produced. All that could be produced was a letter that went out from Human Resources to the employees regarding their obligations, what was going to be happening, and the state law and what it is.”
‘Tough economic times’
Sobecki said the background check requirement includes bus drivers and food service workers as well as teachers and administrators.
“Ms. Hill referred to someone who has worked four years in the district working part-time making $9,000,” she said. “And $22 is important for someone who is possibly trying to get an education or paying off student loans or going to school or making a house payment.
“Those are what I look at because I value my employees and understand and sometimes can feel what they’re going though in these tough economic times. And they have worked tirelessly for us, not only in the position they are paid for, but also in their sacrifices on a very huge deficit that they didn’t create. That was my thinking through this whole process.
“And I agree with my colleagues that both of the checks are important. Actually, I wished that the state did the BCI check because it picks up things that the FBI check does not do. That’s a legislative thing in Columbus.”