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Senate introduces bill to protect abused, neglected children

Bill clarifies previous law that led to sexual abuse misreports in primary, secondary schools

The Abused and Neglected Children Act, introduced to the Rhode Island Senate Feb. 15, clarifies a 2016 law that has caused confusion and a series of sexual abuse misreports by faculty, staff and administrators in primary and secondary schools throughout the state.

The act, sponsored by Sen. Maryellen Goodwin D-Providence, designates one individual within each R.I. school to report cases of sexual abuse to the Department of Children, Youth and Families. “Rather than DCYF having to wade through a lot of the same complaints” by multiple school representatives, “it’s just … one point of contact,” said the Rhode Island Department of Education’s Communications Officer Megan Geoghegan.

Concern surrounding the state’s child abuse reporting statutes originated when a 2016 investigation revealed that St. George’s School in Middletown neglected to report at least 61 cases of sexual abuse during the 1970s and 1980s.

Day One, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit that addresses issues of sexual assault,was working with St. George’s School to connect survivors with clinical services when it proposed a change to the reporting protocol in the state. The group’s advocacy led to the 2016 bill, which extended mandatory reporting to all state primary and secondary schools, said Peg Langhammer, executive director of Day One. A mandatory reporting statute — which requires all persons to report any instance of child abuse — was in place at the time of the St. George’s assaults,  but the law did not clearly mandate the reporting of abuse within educational settings, according to Goodwin.

Langhammer said the bill was modeled after existing Massachusetts legislation. “We knew it wasn’t perfect, but we knew it was an improvement in that it clearly mandated that schools needed to report.”

However, the bill led to a wave of over-reporting, which then intensified after Providence elementary school principal Violet LeMar was put on leave in early 2016 for failing to report instances of sexual abuse to DCYF within 24 hours, Goodwin said. LeMar was found guilty in January, The Providence Journal reported. This school year, there have been over 70 Providence teachers placed on administrative leave due to pending investigations.

“Teachers were so afraid that they too were going to be arrested, so they reported everything,” Goodwin said. “(In) all but one circumstance, the teachers were cleared and sent right back to the classroom.” In addition, the law caused multiple teachers to report the same allegation to DCYF, Geoghegan said.

The new act explicitly mandates that all schools assign one individual —  such as a principal, headmaster or executive director — as the mandatory reporter within each school, Langhammer said.

Day One met with members of the state senate, DCYF, the Office of the Child Advocate, the R.I. Department of Education and the R.I. Attorney General over several months to create the bill. Goodwin hopes that the new act alleviates teachers’ concerns regarding mandatory reporting as well as some of DCYF’s case load.

Day One will stay involved to verify that the rules and regulations of the new legislation are met, Langhammer said. It will also hold regional and statewide trainings regarding sexual assault reporting in order to ensure “continuity” among the different departments, she added.

The bill is expected to be heard in the Senate by the end of April, Goodwin said.

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