Who reports abuse in schools?

By Clay Wilson

School system sources say that following the death of Joella Reaves and subsequent dismissals of several employees, other personnel are jittery over their responsibilities in reporting suspected child abuse.

At some schools, the heightened awareness has resulted in a review of the system's policy governing abuse reports.

"We felt in light of the recent developments that it might be a good idea to go over it again," said Pleasant Grove Elementary School counselor Debra Chambers.

Chambers was referring to the alleged fatal abuse of 11-year-old Reaves and its aftermath in the school system.

Police found Reaves, a sixth grader at Eagle's Landing Middle School, dead in a bedroom of her Stockbridge home on Dec. 1. They charged the girl's father and stepmother, Rodney and Charlott Reaves, with cruelty to children and murder.

Local law enforcement and the school system now are investigating whether ELMS employees violated a state law requiring school personnel to report suspected child abuse to child protection authorities.

Within the last two weeks the Henry County Board of Education has fired ELMS' former counselor and school nurse, and the school's former social worker has resigned.

"We all feel like we're kind of under the microscope," Chambers said Wednesday.

Georgia law requires that school teachers, administrators, social workers and psychologists report to child protection authorities if they have "reasonable cause to believe that a child has been abused."

The law says that those having such belief report to "the person in charge of the facility, or the designated delegate thereof." The person who receives the report is then to transmit it to child protection authorities.

According to school officials, the system's policy has evolved so that in most schools, the counselors are the designated recipient of other employees' abuse suspicions.

School counselors indicated that this places a tremendous responsibility on their shoulders.

"We're very careful about calling (suspected abuse) in," said Chambers. "There've been many times when we might not have felt strongly about something, but we made a report anyway. When we err, we err on the side of the child."

"When in doubt, always make the report," said Union Grove Middle School sixth-grade counselor Candice Gullatt. "Nine times out of 10, I will call" the Department of Family and Children's Services n the designated local child protection agency.

At the termination hearing for former ELMS counselor Patricia White, system officials charged that White tried to investigate the Reaves allegations herself rather than reporting to DFCS n something both Chambers and Gullatt said counselors are forbidden to do.

The extent to which other school personnel and administrators are to be involved with the reporting process seems unclear.

The system's procedures for implementing its abuse reporting policy say that school employees should report their suspicions "directly to the principal or the principal's designee ? in the event that the principal is absent."

According to system Coordinator of Community Development Cindy Foster, administrators at the individual schools determine who receives child abuse reports.

Chambers said she routinely reports to the school's principal after she has interviewed a suspected abused child.

Gullatt said she rarely consults the principal, usually going straight to DFCS. But she said that if, after interviewing the child, she is still unsure whether to make a report, she will consult either the school social worker and/or the principal.

The Rev. Daniel Edwards, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's local branch, said he has concerns about the system of accountability within the schools.

The NAACP has been monitoring the Reaves case at the request of school employees. On Wednesday Edwards spoke out in support of Carolyn Clemons, the former ELMS nurse who was fired by the school board that evening.

"For some reason (system administrators) want to pick and choose who they fire," he said. "If they're going to be just in this, then everybody who laid eyes on Joella Reaves should be terminated."

Henry County Schools Superintendent Jack Parish defended the system's policies.

"We wouldn't take actions we didn't think were just," he said.

He also said that there has been no systemwide directive for schools to review the child abuse reporting policy in light of the case.

"We believe our personnel have clear understanding and directives on how (the policy) is to be applied ?," he said. "If anyone believes there is a need to go over or reinforce that ? then we'll be happy to do that."