Law enforcement authorities will be alerted within 24 hours after a student alleges sexual misconduct by teachers or staff members, under a new policy adopted by the Omaha school board.
The change comes a year after Omaha Public Schools officials drew criticism for not reporting quickly enough when students made allegations against a teacher at Nathan Hale Middle School.
Subsequent police interviews with the alleged victims led to seven felony charges against the teacher, including one count of attempted first-degree sexual assault of a child and three counts of third-degree sexual assault on a child.
Prosecutors who sought to change the district's sexual harassment policy call it a positive step, but they said there's room to tighten it further.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said this week that he and his chief deputy, Brenda Beadle, and Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov met with OPS Superintendent John Mackiel three weeks ago and urged him to change the district's reporting policy. Polikov was involved because some OPS schools are in Sarpy County.
Mackiel, who will retire in August, was cooperative and supported making the change, Kleine said.
"The superintendent said, 'I'm going to push this before I leave,' " Kleine said.
Kleine and Beadle said they are "very pleased" with the changes, although they said their interpretation of Nebraska's mandatory child abuse reporting law is that teachers must report immediately and shouldn't wait 24 hours.
The first 48 hours are crucial to an investigation as evidence goes stale and word of an incident spreads, Beadle said.
Polikov said the policy should call for immediate reporting. He said 24 hours is an arbitrary deadline that gives employees too much latitude and will put them in jeopardy of violating the state's mandatory reporting law.
"The best policy is to react immediately," he said. "Twelve hours could be a lifetime to a child who's being abused."
Mackiel declined a request to comment on the policy, which the board adopted unanimously Monday.
Board President Freddie Gray said the change came about as part of an ongoing review of district policies.
Employees will have to notify police or child protective services regardless of whether they can substantiate the student's allegations.
Under the policy, employees can't just notify their bosses when a child reports misconduct.
Gray said the policy change was based on Omaha State Sen. Brenda Council's legislative bill aimed at clarifying the reporting responsibility of school employees after the Nathan Hale situation.
Gray said the board supported Council's bill, which failed to advance in the Legislature this session. Her bill contained a 24-hour reporting requirement.
"Even though the Legislature didn't pass it, we passed it," Gray said.
District officials were criticized last year for not notifying police quickly enough when several female students accused Nathan Hale teacher Shad Knutson of misconduct. District officials investigated internally and said they found inconsistencies in the girls' stories and did not have enough evidence to support their claims.
Subsequent police interviews with the alleged victims led to felony charges against Knutson and also prompted Kleine to consider charging the OPS employees involved for failing to comply with Nebraska's mandatory child abuse reporting law.
Knutson's case is still awaiting a trial date. Beadle said prosecutors hope to finish that case by the end of the summer. It was delayed by a change in defense attorneys, she said.
The charges against Knutson are based on five alleged victims who were students at Nathan Hale. He is no longer employed by the district.
Kleine said he probably won't decide whether to charge OPS employees for violating the reporting law until the Knutson case is over. He said his top priority is the Knutson prosecution, and his second priority is making sure OPS employees follow state law.
Under Nebraska's mandatory child abuse reporting law, any school employee who has "reasonable cause to believe" that a child has been subjected to child abuse or neglect must report the incident, or cause a report to be made, to police or the state's child abuse hotline.
The law says the employees must also report if they observe a child "being subjected to conditions or circumstances which reasonably would result in child abuse or neglect."
The law does not include an explicit time limit on making a report, but all three prosecutors said the intent is to report immediately.
OPS officials had said that Kleine's insistence on reporting any allegation left no room for discretion that might prevent false accusations from defaming a teacher.
OPS officials had said that in order to establish "reasonable cause to believe" abuse occurred, employees had to conduct at least some initial investigation before reporting.
Chris Proulx, president of the Omaha Education Association, the district's teachers union, said the new policy will be good to the extent it clarifies the reporting responsibility for teachers.
Proulx said teachers will want to know what reasonable protections will be put in place to shield them from false accusations.
Kleine said he wants to meet with school and police officials to discuss protocols on how to put the policy into effect.
Gray said the district retains the right to look into allegations involving an employee. Districts have to make employment and discipline decisions when employees are accused.
"We will still conduct our own investigation, parallel to any outside investigation," she said.
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