Monday, April 25, 2005

School Fined for Not Reporting Sex Abuse

In among all the crummy news today, there is this item:

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School Fined for Not Reporting Sex Abuse
US News
Monday, April 25, 2005

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) - The elite Groton School pleaded guilty Monday to failing to report students' sexual abuse complaints to the state.

Groton officials entered the plea on the day the case was scheduled to go to trial. The school was fined $1,250 and avoided a public airing of damaging testimony.

The investigation began in 1999 after the parents of one student told school administrators that he had been sexually assaulted by a group of older male students. Another student later came forward to say that he'd also been abused by fellow students.

State law requires school officials, doctors, clergy and others to alert social services of any suspected abuse. The boarding school was indicted last summer on one charge of failing to file an abuse report. No individuals were charged.

School officials have said they never hid any abuse, and that they reported three allegations to the state in prior years. They said the student in question did not provide enough information to make a report. [...]
I don't know the state law in Massachusetts, but it probably is similar to the law in Michigan.  Here, all suspected abuse must be reported, even if there is "not enough information."  If the alleged victim is a child, the suspicion is reported to Children's Protective Services; if it is a vulnerable adult, it is reported to Adult Protective Services.  Those two agencies were part of the Department of Social Services before Governor Engler changed the name to Family Independence Agency.  The name change was one of those meaningless political statements that made some conservatives feel good.  Now the name has been changed again, to Department of Human Services.  I suppose that the second name change made  the company that makes their stationery happy. 

I'm not saying this just to be snarky.  Those name changes made it hard for people to figure out whom they should call for various things, so it caused practical problems when the respective governors made their political points. 

To clarify: the emergency contact numbers are here, and the criteria for making a referral are here (110KB PDF).  (I know that those links are not useful to persons outside of Michigan, but I suspect all states have similar sites.)  Note that the referral guide pertains to mandated reporters: health care workers, social workers, school officials, etc.  However, anyone can (and should) make a report.  Don't assume that someone else will report it.  In fact, multiple reports can be helpful in the investigation.  All reports are anonymous, although, admittedly, sometimes it is obvious who must have filed the report.  Persons who knowingly file a false report can get in a lot of trouble.  There is, at least theoretically, no risk to a person who files a report in good faith, even if the report cannot be substantiated.

Unfortunately, the agencies involved are grossly understaffed.  Most investigations are cursory.  In cases of suspected physical abuse, often nothing is done unless there are burns, broken bones, or numerous bruises of different stages of development.  (Bruises change color over time, so often a person who is getting hit a lot will have some purple bruises, some greenish, and so on.)  The fact that these agencies are underfunded and understaffed is an embarrassment to us all.

The reason I mention this is twofold.  For one, it is sort of a public service announcement.  Second, it shows that social service agencies are not just in the business of handing out food stamps and the like.  Persons who agitate for funding cuts need to know that these agencies exist in order to protect the children of our great Nation.  In fact, we will not be a great nation, unless these children are protected.  We all need to demonstrate character, intellect, and leadership on this issue.

(Note: The Rest of the Story/Corpus Callosum has moved. Visit the new site here.)
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For the last six years the Groton School – largely through Karen Schwartzman, their publicist – has denied the widespread nature of the sexual attacks on campus as well as their failure to report. “There’s no question it is demoralizing to have the story go on when you know in your heart you did the right thing,” she complained in an AP article in 2002. In pleading guilty to the criminal charge of not reporting, Groton and Schwartzman expose their true selves. Instead of dealing truthfully with the situation on campus, Groton officials tried to discredit victims, refused to turn over subpoenaed documents, and stonewalled in court.

Now Headmaster Rick Commons - rather than offer an apology to the victims and a firm promise that the school will never behave this way again – said instead: “In this case, we believe this is the best way to put the matter behind us.” He refused to comment further. Six years and huge legal and PR fees – by my calculation over $1,000,000 - belie Commons’ casual dismissal of the school’s guilty plea in criminal court. It seems obvious that the school was afraid that additional information would have come out if the case had gone to trial.

It is disheartening to me, as a parent of one of the victims, that Groton still refuses to admit to and apologize for its criminal wrongdoing. Until that happens, no student is really safe at the school. When the victims reported sexual attacks to the Headmaster six years ago, Groton harbored the molesters and made it difficult for authorities to get at the truth. The school created an environment where other victims feared to speak out. In his recent statement, Headmaster Commons shows that nothing has changed. When something happens which the school does not wish to acknowledge, the victim – and not the crime - will be attacked, a sad lesson for Groton’s alumni to take with them in life. In all of this, it seems obvious that its image is to be of greater concern to Groton than the safety of its students and the real substance of what they learn while at the school.
This is the first time I have heard about the alleged abuse. Maybe I'm bias--I am absolutely in love with the school, I have been every since I visited and saw it in pictures when I was young--but I do question why they did not comment on the case. Perhaps, it might have been that the school did not believe it was their fault.

Now, I'm not taking sides--I'm just presenting an opinion. Groton is a school whose groundwork lies in integrity, character and leadership. What those boys did to your son is horrible and by no means acceptable. But, would one really blame Groton? I mean, if those boys--who obviously lack integrity and character--can do something like that, then they should take the blame, and be given the blame, entirely.

Hawkins--from what I have read--was not assaulted by a staff member. It did not happen in class. To be quite frank, it didn't happen on the school's time, it happened on the boys' time. And yet the responsibility is pushed on the school itself, as if it is in some way, their fault that he was abused. Its frightening and intimidating. It takes a lot of strength to stand up when someone else should. No wonder the school chose to run. I'm not saying it was the right thing to do but a school--especially one as profound and wonderful as Groton--should not be demeaned because of a misjudgement.
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