Providence School Board president: DCYF law needs to be refined

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The president of the Providence School Board said Tuesday the state’s mandatory reporting law on child abuse needs to be refined to clarify how schools should handle incidents when multiple employees become aware of a student’s accusations.

In an interview on WPRO-AM’s Dan Yorke Show, Nicholas Hemond said the city intends to change its policy for reporting abuse to the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), but suggested the General Assembly should “fine tune” a law that requires anyone with knowledge of alleged sexual abuse of a child to contact DCYF within 24 hours.

Violet LeMar, a principal at Harry Kizirian Elementary School, was charged Tuesday with failing to contact DCYF after learning multiple children had accused a physical education teacher at the school of touching them inappropriately. She pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charge and has been placed on administrative leave by the school department.

“I think the intent of the statute is good,” Hemond said. “We need these things reported. The culture of silence is bad. It’s bad for kids. It’s hard enough to get the kid to tell you what happened. You’ve got to make sure it gets reported.”

But Hemond said a “strict reading” of the law suggests every person who becomes aware of an accusation must individually contact DCYF. He said Providence schools will now require all employees with knowledge of alleged child abuse to participate in a conference call with the agency.

“I don’t think it’s a good thing to have 19 people calling DCYF,” Hemond said.

LeMar is the second person to be charged with failing to contact DCYF since the General Assembly revised its mandatory reporting law in 2016. In April, George Blessing, a psychologist at Cranston West High School, was charged with failing to report sexual abuse allegations made by high school student against a teacher.

In an interview Tuesday, Lemar’s attorney, Thomas Gulick, said his client was never trained on the new law. He said she reported the accusations to the school department’s human resources office.

While a mandatory reporting law has been on the books in Rhode Island for many years, it was extended in 2016 to require any member of an “educational program” – including teachers, volunteers or contractors – to contact DCYF if they learn that a child is accusing a school employee of sexual abuse, according to Kerri White, a spokesperson for the agency.

Before the change, sexual abuse allegations “would have been an incident dealt with solely by the police,” White said.

When asked how schools should handle incidents where multiple adults are aware of students’ accusations, White said it’s “not uncommon to us to receive multiple calls.” She said schools could take the conference call approach or they could have a person with “the most firsthand information” contact DCYF. In that case, the reporter would need to provide the contact information of all other professionals “who have the same or additional information.”

Emails obtained by Eyewitness News show at least six school employees – including LeMar – were aware that children had accused physical education teacher James Duffy of touching them inappropriately. Duffy was placed on administrative leave on May 9 and charged with five counts of second-degree child molestation on June 29.

Laura Hart, a spokesperson for the Providence School Department, has repeatedly acknowledged the department failed to contact DCYF. All school administrators have since been retrained on the reporting requirements.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan