Blue Springs mother outraged school district allowed to investigate alleged abuse internally

Attorney says district had conflict of interest

BLUE SPRINGS, Mo. - Should a Missouri state law that allows school districts to internally investigate child abuse allegations against educators be changed?

One Blue Springs family is questioning whether the current law allowing school districts to do just that serves the best interest of children in the Show-Me State.

Jake Livingston looks like the average 9-year-old boy next door.

"(He) likes to write jokes and tell stories. Just overall if you met him, you would think he's a normal kid," said Susan Wolfe, his mother.

Jake has childhood alopecia. The disease caused him to lose his hair. He also has a high-functioning form of autism and ADHD. His school, Sunny Pointe Elementary, offers him some extra individualized help through its Special Education classroom.

But Wolfe said an incident in that classroom on May 7 came as a complete surprise.

Wolfe said it started as a misunderstanding between the special education teacher and Jake regarding a school assignment.

She said Jake believed he had completed the assignment the night before. The special education teacher believed it was not completed. The teacher brought Jake a new worksheet and asked him to complete it.

Wolfe said Jake ripped up the paper. That's when she said the teacher crossed a line.

"She actually grabbed him by the back of his neck and the arm and pushed him to the floor out of his chair," said Wolfe.

Jake had a small mark on his head from the incident. Wolfe took a picture and reported the incident to the child abuse hotline. However, she said she was surprised to learn the school district would be allowed to investigate itself. 

Missouri law allows a school district to choose whether to investigate the allegation itself or have the Department of Social Services conduct the investigation.

Read the Missouri law | http://www.moga.mo.gov/statutes/c100-199/1600000261.htm

Wolfe told 41 Action News Investigators she believes that is a conflict of interest. She said she was not happy with how the Blue Springs School District performed its investigation.

"During this whole investigation I never knew the investigator's name. They never contacted us," Wolfe said. "The only thing they had from us was a statement that my son wrote as a third grader as to what happened."

The investigator obtained written statements from Jake, the teacher involved and two other paraprofessionals who were working in the classroom at the time.

Jake's handwritten statement mirrored the statements of the two paraprofessionals. All three wrote that the teacher grabbed Jake's arm and neck and pushed him to the floor.

The statement the teacher wrote said Jake fell to the floor.

In a letter to the Missouri Department of Social Services, the school district's Board of Education president wrote the investigation found the charge was unsubstantiated.

Wolfe told the 41 Action News investigators she was angered by the report.

"How can two adults and a child have similar report, and then the one teacher that did the assaulting has a different report and it can be dismissed?" said Wolfe.

In the report, the investigator described another incident at the same school involving the very same teacher. The investigator wrote that the principal told him in February -- just three months earlier -- that he had written and spoken to the teacher for grabbing a child by the neck and forcing his head down on the desk.

"That's alarming to me that this is not the first issue that she has had and has been addressed with her," Wolfe said.

Her attorney, Deborah Johnson, said she believes this presents a conflict of interest.

"Why are school districts allowed to investigate themselves when there is an allegation of abuse or neglect? That makes no sense," Johnson said.

Johnson told the 41 Action News Investigators she thinks lawmakers should take a second look at the provision of the law that allows school districts the option to investigate themselves.

"A hotline report is filed against me for social services to investigate, and that report is given to me to investigate myself? What am I going to say ‘Yes, I am guilty?' No, I'm not going to say that. That just seems insane to me," Johnson said.

Information obtained from the Missouri Department of Social Services shows the state received 600 calls about schools, both private and public, into the child abuse hotline in 2011. Statistics show 29 of those calls were substantiated. The Department of Social services does not keep statistics on how often school districts choose to perform investigations themselves.

The Blue Springs School District told 41 Action News the teacher in question resigned while the district was performing the investigation. A spokesperson said the district would have no further comment on the incident due to pending litigation.

A 41 Action News investigation found that teacher is still teaching special education at another school in the Kansas City area.

Jake's family and their attorney feel that is proof the law needs to change.

"It

is a conflict of interest, and it seemed like the priority of the child's welfare was not there," Johnson explained.

The 41 Action News investigators contacted the Missouri Department of Social Services to ask why districts are allowed to investigate themselves. The spokeswoman referred us back to that state law and told us it would be best to question the district about why it chose to investigate itself.

Again, the district has declined to comment citing the pending lawsuit. However, the district said the state reviews all investigations and can step in if they do not agree with the results.

41 Action News contacted the teacher involved, but she did not respond to our request to speak with her about this incident.

Melissa Yeager can be reached at melissa.yeager@kshb.com . You can also follow her on Twitter @MelissaKSHB or connect on Facebook.

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