Lack of reporting of suspected Child Abuse by schools an ‘epidemic,’ prosecutors say
Exactly when Brentwood Academy officials learned of allegations of the rape and sexual assault of a 12-year-old boy by other students at the school, and when they informed law enforcement of what they knew, is disputed.
The allegations against the elite Christian private school outlined in a $30 million lawsuit illustrate what some say is a systemic problem across the state.
Thousands of Tennessee schoolchildren may be vulnerable because of lax reporting and investigating of possible child abuse, according to the findings of a Tennessean investigation.
State law mandates any adult with a suspicion or direct knowledge of child abuse must report it immediately to either child services or the police. Not doing so is a misdemeanor and could mean jail time.
However, two prosecutors say the failure of principals, counselors and teachers to report suspected abuse to proper authorities is widespread.
“The lack of reporting from schools here in Davidson County and probably surrounding counties has become an epidemic,” said Chad Butler, a child sex abuse prosecutor in Davidson County.
“It’s happening so frequently that I can’t help but think it’s not a coincidence.”
Stephen Crump, a Republican prosecutor in East Tennessee, said the problem is a cultural issue in education. School officials often want to investigate the alleged abuse instead of immediately reporting it.
“I can’t teach the math of my kids in high school. (Schools) aren’t trained to do investigations. They will overlook things,” Crump said.
‘I know they’re telling their staff not to report’
Brentwood Academy officials deny wrongdoing, saying they reported what they knew to appropriate authorities at the time.
Brentwood police said the department is investigating allegations of attacks on the boy in the locker room at the academy. That investigation does not include school officials for failure to properly report the attacks, as alleged in the lawsuit.
Kim Helper, the district attorney for Williamson County, said she didn’t think non-reporting was a local issue and she can’t remember any recent prosecutions for non-reporting.
In Nashville, however, Metro police investigate any reporting law violations if there is a suspicion school officials didn’t notify the proper authorities, confirmed police spokesman Don Aaron.
There are active investigations involving Davidson County schools not properly reporting suspected abuse.
“I know they’re telling their staff not to report. … I know for a fact that’s what they’re doing,” Butler said.
“It’s gotten to the point in our office where we’re just going to start prosecuting them.”
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services opened a new investigation Wednesday into allegations at Brentwood Academy, a school for Nashville’s elite with annual tuition nearly $25,000. The school has produced at least 10 NFL players.
DCS was unaware of possible child abuse reporting concerns involving Nashville public schools until contacted by The Tennessean.
“In the rare instances that we learn that someone who should have called us did not, we share that information with the local district attorney general’s office to see if its staff wants to prosecute. That would be the DA’s call, not ours,” DCS spokesman Rob Johnson said in an email.
“We are reaching out to the Davidson County District Attorney General’s office to see what their staff’s specific concerns are about those who do not report child abuse.”
‘I don’t think I’ve gotten explicit instructions’
Metro Nashville Public Schools instructs principals to review abuse reporting policies at the start of every school year, said Tony Majors, executive officer of student services.
“If you have reason to suspect, whether that be visual, behaviors that you observed or a direct statement you’ve received, then you should notify DCS. It’s DCS’ responsibility to investigate,” Majors said in a Friday interview.
Majors and an MNPS spokeswoman declined to comment on Butler’s statements. But Majors acknowledged some principals in recent years “misinterpreted” the policy, telling educators to inform administrators first before notifying DCS or law enforcement of suspected abuse.
That confusion could stem from the wording in MNPS’ policy. Principals are listed before DCS on a list of authorities educators should contact if they suspect abuse.
When informed of the list order by The Tennessean, Majors said it was not intended to be chronological but “now that you’ve brought that to my attention we’ll go back and change the policy.”
Majors said the training includes telling teachers DCS’ child abuse hotline number. Even though the training is required, Majors said the administration isn’t ensuring such training occurs in every school.
Nashville teachers who spoke with The Tennessean said they were told to first contact school counselors, not police or child services, when they suspect abuse.
“I don’t think I’ve gotten explicit instructions on how to file with DCS,” said an MNPS teacher, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the policy.
“If you believe there is any abuse, you are legally obligated to report it. But that is within the school.”
This teacher, who’s been employed by the district since 2010, said teachers have seen mixed results in reporting abuse to a counselor.
Instead, teachers will look for an adult at the school who is close to the student and try to learn more about the circumstances, the teacher said. Once the student feels comfortable, then the teacher said together they will approach a counselor or principal.
While this approach may be well-intentioned, Crump said it could not only compromise a criminal investigation but create the potential for a child to be hurt again.