Ronnie White case highlights school district
handling of Child Abuse, Neglect complaints
Springfield, MO – Arguing for a stiffer sentence for a former Springfield teacher who admitted to sexually abusing a student, Greene County prosecutor Nathan Chapman noted that it wasn’t the first time Ronnie White had been accused of misconduct.
Chapman, a first assistant in the prosecutor’s office, said by citing several complaints of “inappropriate comments, inappropriate touching” in White’s district personnel file, he was attempting to establish a pattern of questionable behavior.
But mention of earlier complaints — which do not appear to have been passed on to authorities — have called into question the district’s handling of the allegations against White, a longtime Parkview High School teacher and coach.
“My comments weren’t meant to be any kind of indictment of Springfield Public Schools,” Chapman told the News-Leader. “What I was talking about, in context, was especially back then, the way things were handled unfortunately provided kind of a shelter for him to continue to be around kids.”
Public entities connected to the case — including the prosecutor’s office, the school district and the Springfield Police Department — declined to provide details or turn over documents that would reveal the nature of the other complaints, how they surfaced and how they were handled.
All agree, however, that if the complaints were made today, they would not have been handled the same way.
“It is my belief that not just Springfield Public Schools but most local institutions, both public and private, including schools, churches, day care centers and medical facilities, have improved mandated reporting since the 1990s,” said Jill Patterson, a school board member and former prosecutor recognized as an expert on mandated reporting laws. “I am confident that reporting has become a priority at SPS and that the required training requires employees to err on the side of the child.
“Reporting may have been inconsistent in the 1990s and the 2000s, but it has become the norm.”
Lisa Turner, chief human resources officer for the district, said she cannot talk about what happened years ago.
“I feel good about what we do today,” she said. “I don’t know what happened five, 10, 15, 20 years ago.”
The News-Leader requested the prosecutor’s office and police department release the investigative reports and other documents gathered as part of the case but was told they would not be released until the deadline for White to appeal has passed. Citing privacy laws, the district also declined to release the reports.
Greene County Prosecutor Dan Patterson said the statute of limitations for prosecuting a mandated reporter for failing to report allegations of misconduct by White — if that is even what happened — would have expired years ago.
Asked if his office considered looking into what happened with the other complaints, Patterson said they “would have been concerning,” but little could have been gained.
“Given the statute of limitations, it would not have been an effective use of resources,” he said.
The White case
White had a lengthy career with the Springfield school district.
Between 1984 and 2010, he taught physical education, health, driver’s education and other subjects at six schools. He spent 11 seasons as the Parkview basketball coach.
A former Parkview student came forward and told investigators that White performed sex acts on her, about once a week, for two years between 1991 and 1993. It reportedly started when she was age 14.
The case never went to trial. In May, White pleaded guilty to deviate sexual abuse.
At the Aug. 22 sentencing hearing, Chapman argued White displayed a “very casual attitude” about his behavior, suggested it was the girl’s idea and described the abuse as a “slip-up” or “little mistake.”
He said the investigation reviewed the personnel records for the former teacher and coach and raised questions about the attitude of his employers and the role the “environment” of the district may have played in the victim’s reluctance to come forward.
Citing the records, Chapman said there were at least four other complaints ranging from the early 1990s to the late 2000s.
He said a student who complained about inappropriate behavior in the early 1990s was asked to take a polygraph.
“They took the victim and made her do a lie detector test. And, not surprisingly, ruled that, you know, the defendant really didn’t do anything wrong,” he said, according to an official transcript of the sentencing hearing, which was obtained by the News-Leader.
“And then through 2002, 2007, 2008, other students coming forward, saying — talking about inappropriate comments, inappropriate touching; and, again, every single time, the school goes out of its way to investigate and finds some way that these students were wrong or they just misunderstood.”
Chapman said the district issued a letter telling White that “you really need to not be touching the students.”
Dan Patterson said by bringing up the previous concerns, Chapman was able to put White’s alleged behavior in context and show it was “not an out of character, one-time thing.”
“We don’t know if he got as far with these other women, but there was grooming activity,” he said.
In an interview with the News-Leader, Chapman said the other complaints raised questions about how allegations were handled at the time and at least suggested White had been sheltered by the district.
He said the allegations were brought up because he anticipated Dee Wampler, the attorney representing White, might argue that the incidents with the victim were isolated and he had acted appropriately in the decades that followed.
“I knew the defense argument would be ‘Well, this happened over 20 years ago and since then, nothing,” he said. “I wanted to make sure the judge knew that was not true, it’s not like nothing (else) has happened.”
Judge Calvin Holden gave White a seven-year sentence, but he was initially placed in a sexual offender assessment unit for 120 days. At the end of that 120 days, White could be released on probation.
Under state law, school employees are mandated reporters. That means if they have reason to suspect a child has been abused or neglected, they must report it.
The mandated reporter law, which emerged in the 1960s, has been changed and strengthened over the years.
Chapman, who provides training on the law along with prosecutor Chris Hoeman, said the last major revision moved away from having a “designated agent” make the hotline call and emphasized the individual responsibility of those who work with children in schools, hospitals, day care centers, libraries, churches, and law enforcement agencies, among others.
“My answer to pretty much every question is, if you are having a moment when you’re thinking ‘Should I report it?’ then report it,” he said. “You don’t do an investigation or ask permission.”
Jill Patterson, now the Title IX coordinator at Missouri State University, said the latest changes leave no doubt that if you hear or see something, you must speak up.
“The whole concept of mandated reporting of child abuse and neglect is to require individuals who interact with children to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect to Children’s Division in an effort to intervene at the earliest possible point,” she said. “There is good evidence that abuse and neglect, left unchecked, often becomes chronic and escalates in severity.”
In the Springfield school district, all new employees must go through mandated reporter training.
Additionally, the overwhelming majority of school employees — including teachers, nurses, librarians, counselors, principals, secretaries, bus drivers and more — must review the guidelines in the first 30 days of each school year.
Teresa Bledsoe, director of communications, said the annual refresher training is provided online and completion is closely monitored by the district.
“If you’ll remember, in the old days, you’d gather in the staff lounge, around a VCR tape and TV and everyone watches it together,” she said.
Ray Smith, a regional director of the Missouri National Education Association based in Springfield, said safeguarding children is a top priority for teachers.
“They take it very seriously,” he said. “It’s one of their professional duties.”
During the past three years, the Springfield school district has made 3,904 hotline calls, or an average of 1,301 a year.
“This district errs on the side of caution in protecting students. I want to protect students and employees,” Turner said. “It doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s coming through, we’re going to hotline it and I think that’s an absolutely outstanding practice.”
Investigator Amber Salsman, who works for the district, said if a teacher or other school employee is the subject of the hotline call, top district officials are notified.
She said if the allegation is serious, the employee is typically removed for the duration of the investigation. If the report is less severe, such as lack of supervision, an extra adult is typically placed in the classroom until the investigation is complete.
“If it’s a staff member and it’s a sexual or an injury report then they are immediately removed from the classroom,” Salsman said. “They are placed on paid administrative leave or suspension.”
Salsman said the investigation is led by the Springfield Police Department, the Greene County Sheriff’s Office or the Children’s Division of the state Department of Social Services.
As the district’s investigator, Salsman will be kept in the loop and check for violations of board policy.
“We support them in that role and we do the personnel side,” she said.
Asked how many serious allegations involving staff are made annually, Salsman said there are years where none are reported.
“I’d say two or three a year would potentially be severe ones,” she said. “The rest of them fall into the lower (category).”
The Springfield school board voted Sept. 20 to unanimously approve updates to its policy, originally adopted in February 2013, regarding reporting and investigating child abuse and neglect.
Among other things, the policy outlines the steps the district takes to support and comply with the mandated reporter law.
The changes, recommended by the Missouri School Boards Association, were to clarify expectations that mandated reporters hotline “all suspected incidents of student-on-student abuse as well as abuse perpetrated by someone with care, custody and control of the child.”
“That is actually new,” said Susan Goldammer, an attorney with MSBA. “It’s because the legislature clarified that Children’s Division can investigate child-on-child abuse.”
The wording of the policy was rearranged and definitions were added to stress that mandated reporters must make the hotline call. They are not required or expected to notify a supervisor in advance when a school employee may be involved in the abuse or neglect.
“Now there has to be direct reporting,” Goldammer said. “The concern was that it would delay reporting and the person — the counselor or the principal — might try to investigate on their own.”
Goldammer said mandated reporters who fail to report what they suspect or know are breaking the law. She added that it is in each community’s best interest to have well-trained school employees, who know the signs of abuse and neglect.
“Schools are where most of the abuse is caught,” she said. “Schools are incredibly important to stopping abuse and neglect and school employees take their responsibilities seriously.”