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November 21, 2002

Safety at deaf school in doubt

From: Oregonian, OR
Nov. 21, 2002


VANCOUVER -- Despite some progress, the Washington School for the Deaf may not be capable of providing a safe environment for students, according to a report by a safety monitoring panel.

In a Nov. 6 memo to Gov. Gary Locke, who oversees the school, the panel cited five areas of concern.

Among them: whether the staff understands how to respond appropriately to students who may be victims of sexual abuse, and whether a new record-keeping policy reduces, instead of increases, the school's accountability in cases of alleged abuse.

"It is not clear whether, without prompting, the school has the innate instincts required to protect children's safety," the memo said.

"It is also not clear whether the school's leadership will use appropriate judgment to continue to improve the school's safety procedures."

School policies and procedures should remain under the scrutiny of trustees or outside experts, the memo said.

Leonard E. Aron, superintendent of the school, was unavailable Wednesday for comment.

The six-page memo is the latest in a series of investigations, reports and studies done at the residential school since August 1999, when parents first publicly aired allegations of sexual misconduct on campus.

Ten lawsuits and one tort claim have been filed against the state in recent years alleging sexual and physical misconduct and abuse at the school.

Written by a five-member panel appointed by Locke, the memo comes nearly a year after safety improvements he ordered in June 2001 were to be in place at the school on Grand Boulevard.

In January, Locke gave the superintendent approval for safety changes that he had made but asked his statewide monitoring panel to submit its final report in June. The panel made a follow-up visit to the school Oct. 30 and submitted its final memo a week later.

Locke met with the school's board of trustees on Nov. 7. No details of that meeting were available.

Locke spokesman Roger Nyhus said late Wednesday he had not seen the memo and could not comment.

In the memo, the safety monitoring panel, chaired by Judge Diane M. Woolard of Clark County Superior Court, outlined concerns about whether the staff understands "the dynamics of victimization" and how to respond appropriately.

As an example, the panel detailed what is called "anecdotal information" about a situation involving a possible sexual assault victim.

This fall, the memo said, the school readmitted a boy who had been named as a possible assailant in an alleged 2001 group assault on a girl, over the objections of a second girl who also accused the boy of assaulting her. He was re-enrolled despite arriving at his bus stop with a BB gun, according to the memo.

Later, the second girl was called to a meeting with the boy in Aron's office. The girl's mother had asked that the meeting not be held without her there to support her daughter, who had received threatening e-mail messages from the boy, the memo said.

The meeting was "to discuss the need to co-exist cooperatively," the memo stated.

The girl was "extremely upset" by the meeting and "ended up hospitalized in an inpatient mental health ward," the memo said.

The panel was "very concerned" about the situation because staff did not mention it during more than four hours of safety discussion with key school staff members on Oct. 30.

Also, if the information is accurate, "The school's response to the concerns of this potential victim were completely inadequate," the memo said.

"The panel is unclear as to whether the staff failed to perceive this as a safety issue (and if so, is concerned about what other safety related issues the staff may be failing to perceive) or whether the staff are minimizing or concealing events that do not reflect well upon the school," the memo said.

The situation could be a teaching opportunity for the staff to examine "faulty premises they appear to be laboring under and the ways that their institutional culture continues to miss the mark," the memo said.

Panel members also were concerned that the school no longer documents details of incidents that prompt reports to Child Protective Services. Without that, the school could wish "to obscure" whether there were any events leading to a protective services report and what the school's role was in response, the memo said.

Such details could be helpful in planning support for the child, it said.

The panel suggested that among other steps, the school's trustees require the superintendent to sign off on every Child Protective Services report.

It also suggested that the superintendent be required to submit formal written reports to the board regarding reviews of all records of behavioral infractions collected in its new Safe and Civil Schools database.

"The board should have a formal policy and role in holding the superintendent . . . accountable," the memo said.

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