Editor’s note: This commentary is by Noah Noyes, who was born and raised in Vermont. He has served as a teacher, school board member, and currently as a public school administrator. His opinions and views are expressly his own.
As many know, criminal charges were brought against two school administrators – a colleague and me – last summer. The charges stemmed from an alleged violation of 33 V.S.A. § 4913, Vermont’s often-called “mandated reporter” law. Nearly a year after these proceedings were first initiated, both cases have now been dismissed, but the history and experience exposes a need to address, reform and clarify this law and its administration.
Reports and investigations into potential child abuse and neglect are of greatest importance. However, this episode uncovered several systemic flaws with current practices. It is critical that we address these flaws in order to keep kids safe to the best of our ability and ensure consistent response. I am hopeful that the parties and agencies involved will examine existing legislation with a critical lens and make adjustments to help educators and others in this important work.
I suspect that many professionals designated as mandated reporters would appreciate if the Vermont Legislature examined 33 V.S.A. § 4913 with the intent of removing the ambiguity contained in this law. I suggest that a definition of “reasonable cause to believe” would be helpful guidance for us all. Many other states have included such clarification in their statutes regarding mandated reporting. A degree of discretionary judgment is now built into the language of the statute; and yet a school administrator can find herself or himself defending this statutory guided discretion in a criminal court – this is so, even in cases where there was full disclosure to every interested party as to the allegation and the investigation conducted. Courts and attorneys in Vermont have declared that this statute is not clearly understood numerous times. I urge the Legislature to remove the ambiguity so that Vermont’s mandated reporters clearly understand our duty and can fulfill it accurately and consistently.
The law enforcement investigation into this matter contained numerous oversights and inconsistencies. The handling of this matter violated Vermont State Police policies, the Vermont Rules of Criminal Procedure (specifically V.R.Cr.P. #3), and Vermont Law (specifically 20 V.S.A. § 2061). Vermonters deserve law enforcement practices that are accurate, thorough, compliant with regulations, and based in integrity. The initial press release on this matter contained inaccurate information as did subsequent media interviews with law enforcement officers. The fundamental premise of our judicial system and our civil liberties rely on appropriate and lawful policing, and Vermonters should settle for nothing less.
The Vermont State Police and prosecutor’s office spent nearly a year and untold amounts of resources and taxpayer money pursuing this case. It should also be noted that these charges of “failing to report” were pursued despite the fact that no child abuse or neglect was ever substantiated in this case by any of the several agencies involved in investigating it. Vermonters should insist that our limited resources are better utilized in other ways related to public safety. Again, there is nothing more important than child safety, education, and protection, but this case clearly demonstrates that funds which are scarce and unfortunately not available in many clearly important instances (i.e. early intervention, counseling, art, music … all of which are suffering and being routinely slashed from school budgets) are being used to literally no remedial end. While I respect our branches of government and their decision-making authority, I do not respect or appreciate how schools have to scrape by for hot-lunch programs, while untold piles of money are used to pursue a baseless case.
A large amount of inaccurate or incomplete information was published by various media outlets across Vermont. Additionally, several agencies openly published the name of the teacher involved in the allegation despite the fact that this teacher was cleared of any misconduct and never faced charges of any kind. There were volumes written about the accusations and allegations and a brief paragraph covering the ultimate outcome. Contemporary journalism seems to have given up on the idea of due process in favor of drama and uninformed judgments regardless of whose expense the headlines come at. Vermonters deserve complete, factual, and balanced reporting.
To be clear, I take my responsibilities as an educator, mandated reporter, and adult who is responsible for the safety and well-being of students very seriously. It is always on the forefront of my mind. I raise these issues in hopes that it will lead to more clarity for mandated reporters, better use of our precious limited resources, and improved coordination between agencies of education, child protection, and law enforcement. The educators that I know do everything in their power to protect and serve children. It is time to give mandated reporters better tools to do this important work with clarity, confidence, and recognition of good faith.
An opportunity exists to examine these issues and make improvements to our current systems. Let’s take advantage of this chance to work together to build a better and stronger Vermont.
A revised version of this commentary was posted at 11:27 on April 14, 2014.