School Districts’ Obligations in Addressing Allegations of Abuse
by Caitlin McAndrews, Esq.
McAndrews Law Offices, P.C.
A recent federal court decision in Connecticut emphasized the importance of school officials acting promptly and properly in addressing allegations of abuse. Doe v. Darien Board of Education. In Doe, a special education director testified that because the disabled student frequently confused events in school with events occurring outside of school, she would not have believed allegations of abuse from the student. This fact, together with the incomplete investigation conducted by the school officials, were factors considered by the court in allowing a suit for money damages to continue against the school district under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
A number of lessons can be taken from this and other cases involving allegations of sexual abuse of children with disabilities. It is important to remember that sexual predators often target children with disabilities because they know that adults are less likely to believe their reports of abuse. It is critical for school officials to remember that they are mandatory reporters of allegations of abuse, and it is not for school officials to determine if the child is fully truthful or accurate before immediately reporting the abuse. It is also essential for schools to train staff to report abuse allegations regardless of the child’s disability, and to avoid having untrained persons question the student, as repeated or unsophisticated questioning may taint the future investigation. It is for this reason that many states have multidisciplinary teams to investigate reports of child abuse. These multidisciplinary teams are the product of collaboration between law enforcement and child protective services, and are designed to undertake a single forensic interview with the child in a safe, secure setting which avoids the emotional trauma of repeated interviews.
It is important to remember that predators not only groom children for sexual abuse, but also deceive the caretakers of those children so that responsible adults are less likely to suspect abuse. School employees can be the target of such deception, no less than persons in the general community. School districts must remember that they are responsible for conducting competent investigations of all allegations of sexual abuse related to school-based activities, and that it is important to carefully and promptly coordinate that investigation with law enforcement after an immediate report of child abuse to the responsible outside agency.