Omaha school district policy allows school officials to decide whether or not to tell police or other authorities about sexual abuse allegations.
But at least three school board members want to review the policy after the arrest of a former Nathan Hale Middle School teacher earlier this week.
The teacher was charged with three felony counts of third-degree sexual assault of a child. The charges stem from allegations made by three female students in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Police began investigating only after a parent contacted state officials.
District officials never reported the allegations to police because “we did not have credible evidence to cause suspicion,” district spokeswoman Luanne Nelson said Thursday. “If we have any suspicion that an infraction has occurred, we call (law enforcement).”
According to district policy, an assistant superintendent investigates complaints to determine if any sexual harassment occurred. If that investigation reveals “possible criminal misconduct,” law enforcement is to be contacted.
Nonetheless, the district should have reported the student complaints to authorities, said Kersten Borer, a school board member and mental health therapist.
“It's extremely concerning if there were opportunities that this should have been reported and it wasn't,” she said. “As a cautionary measure, we need to report anything and let child protective services decide if it actually happened or not.”
Board member Justin Wayne said district officials should have reported the allegations to authorities, then conducted their internal investigation.
State law requires those with “reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse or neglect” to contact the proper law enforcement agency or the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
Board president Sandy Jensen said the district followed OPS policy in handling the cases. But she still wants school board members to have a “rich discussion” about the issue during a regularly scheduled committee meeting on Monday.
“The issue at hand is, was the policy followed and was everything done to ensure students were kept safe?” said Jensen.
In December 2008, a 13-year-old alleged that Shad M. Knutson sexually touched her. In 2009, another 13-year-old alleged that Knutson brushed his hands against her breasts.
Both times, after placing Knutson on paid administrative leave and investigating the complaints, OPS let him return to his eighth-grade social studies position at Hale, 6143 Whitmore St. Nothing was reported to police.
In October 2010, Omaha police started to investigate Knutson after the mother of the third alleged victim contacted HHS's child protective services.
The alleged victim, 13, told police that Knutson touched her breasts and asked her not to tell anyone.
OPS again placed Knutson, 34, on paid administrative leave.
While investigating the third alleged victim's complaints, police learned of the 2009 case. An investigation of the 2008 case came after police subpoenaed OPS personnel records and staff files related to Knutson.
Last month, the district told Knutson that his contract would not be renewed for the 2011-12 school year for performance issues. By the end of April, Knutson had officially resigned.
Gene Klein, the executive director of Project Harmony, a local nonprofit child advocacy center, said OPS should have contacted authorities at some point.
“Child abuse is a crime. So it's really not an organization's or a business' responsibility to investigate a crime,” he said. “They might have a reporting process internally, but then at some point there's a responsibility to let the authorities know...that's what we have law enforcement agencies for.”
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