State law requires school employees (and volunteers at schools) to report suspected abuse of children within 24 hours of hearing about it. Those found guilty can be fined up to $1,000 and jailed for a year, even if it turns out that the alleged assault that sparked a case never actually happened. And to its discredit, the Cobb school board has been overzealous in enforcing that law.
The latest such unintended Cobb victim is now-retired Kell High School principal Trudie Donovan. Her acclaimed career essentially ended after she quickly was charged with failure to report to higher-ups that Kell teacher James C. Brigham had slapped one student’s buttocks and another in the face while in class last year.
But guess what? As reported in Monday’s MDJ, the Cobb Solicitor’s Office now has decided to drop the charge against her due to lack of evidence.
“After an extensive investigation, the state is unable to pursue this charge due to lack of facts or supporting evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant violated the ‘willfully and knowingly’ portion of (the mandatory reporting law),” Assistant Solicitor General Latonia Hines wrote.
And three months before Donovan retired, Dr. Jerry Dority, a 28-year educator and principal at Tapp Middle School, and counselor Yatta Collins were charged (and later fired by the school board) for failure to report that a child allegedly had been molested and had attempted suicide. Collins had heard the allegations second hand and Dority third-hand. Hearsay evidence is inadmissible in U.S. courtrooms; but failure to report hearsay allegations is now a fireable offense in Cobb, and we suspect other parts of Georgia as well.
Meanwhile, Awtrey Middle School principal Jeff Crawford is the latest educator to get snared. He failed to report hearing of an alleged off-campus sexual assault involving two students. The Cobb School District apparently has decided to “go easy” on Crawford. It did not file criminal charges, but is trying to suspend him for a day without pay and plans to haul him in for e a disciplinary hearing next month. He contends he did nothing wrong and is fighting what would be an undeserved blot on his reputation.
And in an even more troubling case that didn’t involve the 24-hour reporting law, but amply demonstrates the Cobb School District’s “fire ’em first; ask questions later” approach, standout Cobb elementary teacher Gregory Leontovich was fired by a prior incarnation of the Cobb school board in 2005 for supposedly sexually assaulting a 6-year-old student — even though her teacher swore the girl had never left her classroom on the day in question and even though a hospital exam showed no signs of an assault. It was her word against his, and that was good enough for the board.
Leontovich eventually cleared his name in 2008 (with the help of a Cobb Superior Court jury, and after spending 26 days in jail), but lost his job, his profession, his reputation and his savings in order to do so.
SO TO RECAP, neither Donovan nor Dority nor Collins nor Crawford are accused of actually abusing anyone. Yet all have become high-profile victims of a well-intended but flawed law, their names and careers in tatters or tarnished.
“For this to have fallen on (Donovan) the way it did was just a tragedy, and unfortunately things are going to have to happen to prevent this from occurring (again),” retired Cobb assistant superintendent Dr. Stanley Wrinkle told the MDJ.
“This just changed a person’s life,” he said. “There is no telling how much money she spent (defending herself), but to treat someone like a common criminal is beyond words of horror.”
That goes for the others accused as well.
POLICE OFFICERS who shoot someone in the line of duty typically are put on desk duty, with pay, until the matter is resolved.
Someone accused of sexual assault in cases like the ones cited above is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Cobb educators, however, are presumed guilty unless they can somehow prove their innocence.
That is wrong and needs to change. The Cobb school board needs to challenge Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa and the Central Office to re-evaluate how they apply the law in question in order to prevent more valued educators from becoming casualties.