Take Two for February 8, 2013

School principals who fail to report abuse are rarely prosecuted

Grant Slater/KPCC

George De La Torre Elementary School in Wilmington near the the Long Beach harbor.

Principal Irene Hinojosa and teacher Robert Pimentel worked together for years. By all accounts, she thought highly of Pimentel as a teacher, and over the years, received several positive reviews.  

So when parents complained that he’d been touching girls, district officials said she disregarded the complaints.
 
Now, Hinojosa, finds herself is at the center of an investigation and possible prosecution by the L.A. City Attorney’s office. Prosecutor Donna Edmiston said she has been in contact with the LAPD and is “very interested” in the outcome of the investigation.

A failure to report is a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of six months in a county jail, a fine up to $1000, or both. But to convict someone for failure to report, prosecutors have to prove that a mandated reporter suspects a child has been abused or neglected yet, takes no action to tell police. And that’s a very hard thing to do.

Santa Clara prosecutor, Alison Filo, said prosecutions “are incredibly rare.” She said her county has only charged mandated reporters twice in 20 years. Last November, Filo was prosecuting a principal for not telling anyone after a second grader said her teacher blind folded her, apparently licked her feet, and made her taste a salty liquid.

After a weeklong trial, the jury said they were at an impasse, unable to reach a verdict. So the judge sent them home for the weekend.

“And they came back on Monday and they were able to work out their differences but even with what I thought was very compelling and concrete evidence, they really struggled to come to a verdict,” said Filo. 

In the end, the principal was convicted by her own hand. She’d kept copious notes of the incident, which Filo said, “Were so descriptive and so obvious that it was inconceivable to me that this child was describing anything other than a sexual assault.”

Ultimately, said Filo, the jury decided that the principal should not have been talked out of her reasonable suspicion. However, by the time the principal was convicted, the teacher abused another child.
 
But Filo says it’s not as cut and dry as it sounds because principals are caught in a tough spot. Unlike nurses or therapists, school staff are often receiving allegations about co-workers, who they know and trust.
 
“It’s something about the fact that the alleged abuser or molester is someone with whom they work, that dissuades them from making the report,” said Filo. “And that’s where they run into trouble.”

At L.A. Unified, officials couldn’t recall the last time a school administrator was prosecuted for the crime.

Vivian Ekchian is the head of human resources for the district and she said they hammer home an employee’s responsibilities in an online annual training. The take away lesson: If it’s reported to you, you need to report, even when it’s unclear if something untoward has occurred. 

Violations result in consequences from the district.
 
In the case of Irene Hinojosa, Ekchian said LAUSD pulled her out of the school and started the firing process as soon as they learned about the failure to report. The teacher, Robert Pimentel is in jail facing 15 counts of sexual abuse, involving 12 victims.

Ekchian said the district has no tolerance for not reporting child abuse but stopped short saying LAUSD would move to dismiss any principal who fails to report. “I think every case needs to be examined and investigated carefully,” said Ekchian.

Even in the very few cases where criminal charges are filed and a person is convicted, the punishment is slight.  
 
In Orange County, a student told her math teacher she was being abused by a family member. The teacher told her to lock her bedroom door, but waited until the following morning to report the abuse. Last month she was convicted of failing to report and sentenced to one-year probation and 20 hours of community service.

Deanne Tilton Durfee said that kind of punishment just isn’t enough. She runs an L.A. County child abuse prevention agency. “The penalty for failure to report should be equal to the perpetration of the abuse,” she said. “You are sentencing that child to a lifetime of potential mental health problems and ultimately a total breakdown of their self confidence and sometimes suicide.”

Law enforcement wants another change: to extend the statute of limitation. It’s now, one year.

That’s a change Donna Edmiston would like to see happen soon. “We need need to change the statute of limitation so that when it does come to light, two or three years later, we’re actually able to do something and to file a case. 

Edmiston said authorities usually find out when a second child is victimized but by then it’s too late to prosecute the earlier failure to report. In Hinojosa’s case, the last time anyone can tell parents complained was in 2008. So unless law enforcement finds evidence of a more recent report, it’ll be impossible to prosecute her.
 
The LAPD says they’re still investigating.

Related stories:

Principal at center of LAUSD's latest sex abuse scandal may lose credential

UPDATE: New details about Los Angeles elementary teacher arrested in alleged molestation of 20 students (PDF)

Former LAUSD teacher Pimentel accused of another lewd act


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