Cobb sex abuse report misdirected

When a Kell High School student approached the school's counselor to report repeated sexual advances from her teacher last spring, it took school officials four days to inform state child welfare officials about the allegations of abuse.

Records describe a breakdown in communication between the principal at the Cobb County school and the district's human resources department, plus a critical misinterpretation of the state law that requires school administrators to report suspected abuse within 24 hours.

The case illustrates the confusion swirling around the Mandated Reporter Law, which was recently expanded to school and church volunteers.

Throughout metro Atlanta, school officials are stepping up training and want to send a clear message to employees: If you don't report suspected child abuse within 24 hours, you could lose your job and face up to a year of jail time.

As a result of the latest incident, Trudie Donovan, a longtime educator with the district, retired as Kell's principal and was charged with a misdemeanor that she failed to report the allegations against the teacher in time.

The teacher, James Brigham, resigned and was arrested on one count of felony sexual battery and two counts of misdemeanor battery.

Peggy Jerden, the counselor, also resigned but was not arrested. The school system would not comment on why she resigned.

Earlier this year, two administrators at Cobb's Tapp Middle School lost their jobs after being charged with failing to report suspected abuse within 24 hours.

With only a handful of people responsible for training a large and transient population, some employees don't know their responsibility, said Paul Shaw, the director of educator ethics of Georgia's Professional Standards Commission. Shaw travels the state to speak to teachers.

"I always tell teachers, 'If [former Penn State football coach] Joe Paterno can get in trouble, by God, what do you think can happen to us?' " he said.

But sometimes, as was the case with Brigham, who had been disciplined before for inappropriate behavior toward students, administrators are unclear on the law.

Allegations of slaps

As school administrators at Kell were busy preparing for graduation, a student younger than 16 reported that Brigham would pull her desk close to his, keep her after class and stare at her. He complimented her body, she said, and told her that her boyfriend was lucky.

Eventually, the student said, he became physical — slapping her on the rear end and across the face so hard it left a mark. According to the investigative file, the student said Brigham explained that he slapped her because that's what pimps do.

Donovan, according to her personnel file, tried calling human resources officials on May 18, the same Friday that the student reported the alleged abuse to Kell's counselor. She was told by a secretary that no one was in.

The following Monday, Donovan again called and left a message before going to graduation practice, according to district records. After four days of trading phone calls, Donovan learned from human resources investigator Jay Morrissey that she was required to call state child welfare authorities, which she did that day.

Donovan said she didn't think teachers fell under the "parent" or "care taker" clause of the law.

"I did not think that I should be reporting to anyone other than HR because it was an employee," Donovan said in letter to the district. "I in no way was deliberately trying to not do my job. I did what I thought the principal was to do when an incident involves an employee."

Donovan and Brigham did not return telephone calls requesting an interview.

"You can't control what people learn," said Paulette Herbert, the supervisor of Cobb's school social work department, who oversees the district's training on the Mandated Reporter Law. "Some people may come away [from the training] with a different interpretation and filter it through their own knowledge."

Another student speaks

In prior years, Cobb school counselors held an hour-long training session for all school employees at the beginning of the school year, as required by law. The training detailed what child abuse is, how to detect it and the employees' responsibilities. Employees are required to report allegations of abuse to the principal or the principal's designee.

This year, with the expansion of the law to include volunteers and coaches, Cobb employees will have the option of taking a test online after watching a video.

Other districts, such as Marietta City Schools, have principals train employees and offer refresher courses throughout the school year.

In the case at Kell, Brigham had been the subject of previous student complaints. In 2006, a student said he ridiculed her in front of the class for dating an Indian and accusing her of being fired from Dunkin Donuts for "fooling around in the back."

"I truly cannot explain my actions, other than I got [too] comfortable with kidding around with these students and crossed the line of teacher/student behavior," he said in a letter to the district. "I have learned a valuable lesson about how the fragile bond between a teacher and student can be broken."

He was suspended for seven days without pay.

Last spring, after the one girl reported that Brigham had slapped her, another female student alleged that the social studies teacher had rubbed her arm and made an inappropriate comment to her.

"We try to stress the timeline [to report]," Herbert said. "At the end of the day, you want to make sure the child is safe. Our concern is that it gets reported."