Gatto bill would boost abuse reporting on school campuses

On the heels of criminal cases involving California teachers and district employees who failed to report alleged child abuse on campus, Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Silver Lake) has proposed a law that would require public schools to adopt uniform procedures for detecting and reporting such crimes.

In one of the cases cited by Gatto, however, prosecutors dropped the charges against the teacher.

Assembly Bill 1432 would also require that school employees receive training on an annual basis, either online or in person.

Though a 1963 law requires those working in schools to report neglect or sexual, emotional or physical child abuse, it does not mandate districts regularly train employees on how to do that.

"The fact that it's not a mandate means there's no teeth in it," Gatto said. "There are over one thousand [school districts] in California. We have no idea who is getting trained and who isn't."

His bill was drafted following cases of student abuse that initially went unreported to law enforcement, even though at least one school employee had been aware of the alleged conduct.

He pointed to an incident in the Redwood City School District in Northern California, where eight staff members failed to report a teacher's alleged abuse of two 5-year-old special-education students. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, prosecutors dropped the case against the teacher after witnesses changed their story about what had actually occurred.

In another incident in the Brentwood Union School District, also up north, 11 employees failed to tell authorities about a special-education teacher who kicked an autistic student. After that case came to light, families of eight other students emerged with similar claims against the same teacher. In January, according to the Contra Costa Times, the district settled a lawsuit with the parents of those children for $8 million.

The teacher, Dina Holder, pleaded no contest to child cruelty, also according to the Contra Costa paper, and resigned as part of a December 2012 settlement of a separate lawsuit that contained similar allegations.

"The more you delve into them, the more they break your heart. You also get angry," Gatto said of cases of unreported abuse. "These were cases of abuse that could have been prevented."

In the La Cañada Unified School District, employees act as mandated reporters and notify authorities in suspecting cases of child abuse.

Each year and every time an employee is hired on at the district, they review the procedures for reporting abuse, said Patricia Hager, associate superintendent of human resources.

"When we're talking about a child's situation, [and] it could be dangerous, we're going to take that very seriously," she said. "There are tight guidelines and we're all expected to follow those."

School employees then notify the police or child protective services.

"We have a very proactive student-centered staff," Hager added. "They're paying attention."

State Supt. Tom Torlakson announced his support of the bill last week in a statement, saying that the current lack of required training for those working in schools "does a disservice to both school employees and to the children these laws are meant to protect."


Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.


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