Dec. 8, 2004 - DeGrazia Elementary School officials may face criminal charges for failing to immediately report a 5-year-old girl's statement that she'd been sexually abused by her father. It is the second instance this year when a Marana school has been investigated for failing to notify law enforcement of such an allegation.
The girl's father, Timothy Stephen, has pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual conduct with a minor and will be sentenced Dec. 17.
Sheriff's reports differ as to when the kindergartener blurted out to a teacher that she'd been abused by her father during the past few years. According to the report filed by Deputy Monica Torralba, who received the initial claim from DeGrazia Principal Julia Barwell Sept. 10, the student made the statement Sept. 8. According to the report by Detective Bill Knuth, who was called in to assist with the investigation, the girl made the statement Sept. 7.
Torralba and Knuth were unavailable to comment on the date discrepancy.
According to sheriff's reports, DeGrazia kindergarten teacher Connie Jensen heard the girl's initial statement but didn't know what to do about it. She then told another kindergarten teacher, Dorlis Menendez, who passed the information on to the school counselor Jennifer De la Montano. The counselor notified Principal Barwell who told Jensen to document the incident and forward a letter to her.
According to Torralba's report, that letter was dated Sept. 9. In it, Jensen stated that she'd had the "encounter" with the girl who described the abuse a few days earlier.
Barwell was off-campus for the latter part of the day and did not receive the letter until Sept. 10. On that date, when she ran into Torralba, who is a Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer at DeGrazia, she took the deputy into her office and asked if the incident was something that should be reported to Child Protective Services.
"I reminded Mrs. Barwell that the matter was criminal in nature and should have been immediately reported to 911 upon disclosure," Torralba's report states.
Neither the kindergarten teachers nor the school counselor notified the sheriff's department or CPS, according to the report. The sheriff's reports also state the girl may have been abused as recently as Sept. 9.
According to Arizona law, any person who "reasonably believes" that a child has suffered injury, abuse or neglect shall immediately report that to a peace officer or CPS.
Torralba's report indicates that officials at Marana schools have neglected to report such allegations in previous instances.
"I have also had discussions with Mrs. Barwell regarding 'failure to report' referring to past incidences involving the Marana school district," the report states.
Neither Barwell nor Torralba would comment on the specific statement because the school officials' actions are currently undergoing criminal investigation.
In March of this year, MUSD officials were investigated by the Department of Public Safety, but no charges were filed. In that situation, district officials, including Thornydale Elementary Principal Lynnette Brunderman and former Superintendent Richard Lesko, conducted their own investigation into the girl's allegation that a bus driver had tickled her in inappropriate places, including underneath her shirt and on her buttocks. The bus driver was never charged in the case.
In an interview last week, Brunderman said that case, which happened between March and May of 2003, occurred before a new law was passed regarding reporting cases of child abuse. She said the current law is much more clear that abuse must immediately reported to CPS and law enforcement. She could not speak directly about the situation between the girl and the bus driver because the parents of the girl have filed a lawsuit against the Marana school district.
The lawsuit, which was filed by the parents of the girl last December, is still pending and set for trial June 7, said the family's attorney James Stuehringer. The parents claim that the district's actions tainted the criminal investigation of the bus driver. The lawsuit also claims that district officials should have known that the bus driver had inappropriate relationships with children on his bus. According to the suit, the district denies the assertions, but acknowledges the bus driver worked with the district and that the girl was on his bus.
In that situation, former Superintendent Rick Lesko said interviews of the bus driver and children who rode the bus were needed to find out if anything worthy of reporting had occurred.
District officials said additional training has been put into place to meet the state mandate to immediately report child abuse. Superintendent Jane Pryne and Assistant Superintendent Ron Rickel did not return phone calls, instead referring all questions to the district's community relations coordinator, Tamara Crawley.
Crawley said the district has a training process that takes place during the summer, which includes law enforcement, where principals are given a presentation about how to properly report child abuse. The principals are then responsible to train the teachers and staff at their individual campuses. Pima County Detective Gerald Moretz is available to provide on-site training to staff and teachers at all the district's schools, Crawley said. She added that the district has no immediate plans to change the training.
Board President Janice Mitich also said the district has training in place to ensure that teachers, staff and administrators know who to contact if they learn of a case of child abuse.
MUSD principals at other schools said their staff received the training and should know where to report if such an incident occurred on their campus.
Butterfield Elementary Principal Gayle Schmidt said she received the training during the summer and that it included information from a representative of the Pima County Attorney's office.
She said that at a staff meeting prior to the first day of school she presented the information to the employees at Butterfield. If employees were not available to attend that meeting she said they watched a video that conveyed the same information. She also said she encourages her staff to come to her with questions if any issues are unclear.
Schmidt said she did not know of any further incidences at a Marana school where a district official neglected to report an incident to law enforcement.
All of the district's employees are in the process of signing a document that states they understand what to do if they believe a child has been abused, Crawley said. She said she could not comment on whether the DeGrazia officials would receive discipline from the district during the course of the criminal investigation.
Ironwood Elementary Prinicpal Jennifer Vemich and Coyote Trail Elementary Principal Dan Johnson both said they employ similar training methods as Schmidt at their schools. Each principal said they provide documents to the teachers and staff at their schools that contain information about where they should report if such a situation arises.
Vemich said she provides her staff with a copy of the power point presentation created by the district's legal counsel.
She said she believes the district is doing everything possible to keep teachers and staff informed, and that she continuously updates her staff with any new information.
Vemich also said she did not know what would have been the basis of the statement in Torralba's report that the district had a history of failure to report.