Because Brentwood school staff and administrators ignored state reporting requirements after a teacher pulled a 5-year-old student from his chair and kicked him as he lay on the ground, his parents unwittingly sent their fearful son back into his abuser's classroom.
Teacher Dina Holder eventually pleaded no contest to misdemeanor child abuse. But left to district personnel, the case might never have reached the legal system.
Staff members reported the incident up the chain of command, but failed to notify outside authorities. Top administrators wrongly decided to first investigate rather than alerting police or child welfare workers trained to probe criminal matters. Assistant Superintendent Margaret Kruse regarded the case an employee discipline matter and said she never considered whether a crime was committed.
It was the student's upset parents who notified police when they finally learned of the incident a week after it occurred. Only then did they understand why their special-needs child had a purple lower-back bruise and was saying "no, no" as they approached school the day after the abuse.
Some 2½ years later, Superintendent Merrill Grant on Wednesday defended the notification delay, saying the principal needed to first establish the veracity of the allegations.
That's wrong, says attorney William Grimm of the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland. Unfortunately, it's a common misconception among educators. "They think somehow they need to investigate, to conduct some sort of inquiry. People need to be trained to understand that's not your job."
A San Jose principal, who botched her own investigation of a sexual-abuse incident involving a teacher, was convicted last year of a misdemeanor for failing to alert authorities. In Moraga, the district faces multi-million-dollar lawsuits filed by three former students who say administrators failed to report complaints of teachers who sexually abused them.
The law is clear. Each school worker must "immediately" report knowledge of "any reasonable suspicion" of abuse. If two or more people know, they may agree to designate one to notify authorities.
The Brentwood procedural breakdown is revealed in hundreds of pages of deposition transcripts from the parents' civil lawsuit against the district, Holder and Principal Lauri James. This month's settlement forces the district to pay $950,000 and finally removes Holder from the classroom.
From the onset, this case clearly met the "reasonable suspicion" notification standard. Instructional aides directly witnessed the abuse. However, they misunderstood the law and believed they only had to notify superiors.
That set off a five-person communication chain, in which no one called authorities, before word reached James. One veteran teacher directed witnesses to take their concerns back to the abuser.
Rather than calling police or county Child Protective Services, James launched her own investigation. She had never dealt with such a situation before and didn't know whether Holder's actions, if true, might be criminal.
While tied up in meetings, James directed the school psychologist to collect written statements from witnesses. But James didn't talk to them before she contacted the abuser.
The abuse occurred on a Tuesday. James learned about it on Wednesday afternoon. It wasn't until Friday night that she and Kruse determined they should notify Child Protective Services.
What happened next depends on whom you believe. James testified that a CPS worker told her that the district should handle the matter internally.
"That's not something we do," CPS spokeswoman Lauren Brosnan said Thursday. She couldn't discuss this case because of confidentiality rules. But she said licensed social workers who take the calls about abuse are well-trained. The agency handles allegations of abuse within families and refers other reports to police, she said.
James' account is more troubling because the school psychologist, Samantha Sheldon, gave a different version. She testified that James told her she was instructed by CPS to call police. That never happened.
Ironically, James reprimanded some of her staff, not for failing to properly report the incident to authorities, but for failing to report it to her. "Under SOP (standing operation procedure)," she testified, "anything that you see or hear out of the ordinary needs to be reported to me."
Clearly, remedial training is urgently needed.
Daniel Borenstein is a Contra Costa Times staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248.