Conn. report: School abuse cases poorly handled

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Associated Press

Posted on July 9, 2010 at 1:01 AM

Updated Friday, Jul 9 at 1:01 AM

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The Connecticut public school system does a poor job handling alleged cases of student abuse and neglect by employees, according to a report released Thursday by the state attorney general and the state child advocate.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and Jeanne Milstein of the Office of the Child Advocate said their offices' joint investigation found that the state Department of Education and the Department of Children and Families underreported and poorly investigated abuse allegations.

"There must be profound sweeping change in our statewide system for reporting and responding to abuse allegations," Blumenthal said in a statement. "Although most teachers and other school employees are dedicated hardworking professionals, a very few may tragically violate their trust and cause harm to the children they are supposed to be helping."

The study began almost five years ago, and focuses on school districts in Bridgeport, New Haven, East Hartford, Southington and Westport, Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal and Milstein said the study revealed problems in the way background checks of prospective school district employees were conducted and problems with how cases of student abuse and neglect were reported. The report also found that cases of abuse that lacked thorough investigation and that school employees who did wrong were not being held accountable for their actions.

"This investigation revealed a number of very serious holes in our safety net for protecting children from abuse and neglect," Milstein said.

The report recommended that laws be put into place to give school districts access to DCF's child abuse and neglect registry before making hires, require yearly reviews of policies and training on reporting student abuse and neglect cases, create a computer archive of delayed and unreported abuse cases toward correcting missteps, further coordination between DCF and the education department.

DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said the agency often reviews how it conducts investigations and properly trains its case reporters.

"While there may be isolated instances where mandated reporters fail to abide by their obligation, we believe that communication between school systems and the department is free flowing and effective," Kleeblatt said in a statement.

Education department spokesman Thomas Murphy said not all cases of unreported abuse can be attributed to negligence.

"There are instances where teachers struggle with cases of abuse because it's often subtle," he said. "And there's a chance that if a teacher gets it wrong, it could have damaging effects to a child and career of an employee."

He said it would be helpful if the department received additional support in helping school employees deal with sensitive issues involving students. The department currently has only one investigator assigned to look into cases for the state's 166 school districts, he said.

Murphy said the education department has a system in place to vet employees. He said all new hires are subject to mandatory criminal background searches and annual record checks of employee records are done.

He said the department would review the findings, however.

"We do believe there is always room to take constructive criticism and turn it into improvement," he said.

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