A North Platte teacher and guidance counselor allege the school district violated state law by requiring them to contact parents before reporting a suspected child abuse case, then retaliated against them for filing an employee grievance.
Karen Kilgarin, Nebraska State Education Association director of public relations and government affairs, said the issues could have statewide implications.
“We want to assure that children are safe,” she said. “That has to be our first concern. That is always the first concern of our teachers. They really can’t be concerned about whether a parent or administrator gets upset with them for fulfilling their statutory duty.”
State law requires doctors, nurses, school employees and social workers to report suspected abuse and neglect. Not doing so is punishable by up to three months in jail and a $500 fine.
One of three lawsuits filed Monday asks Lincoln County District Court to rule that a directive from North Platte Public Schools officials that teachers must check with parents before reporting suspected abuse unless the child is in immediate danger will have a chilling effect that could put children in danger.
It also asks that the court rule school districts can’t put that or other conditions on the law requiring teachers to report suspected abuse.
Two other lawsuits -- one filed in Lincoln County District Court and another with the Commission of Industrial Relations -- allege that middle school teacher Christie Copper and guidance counselor Stephen Spiehs were accused of insubordination for filing the employee grievance.
Those lawsuits ask the court to rule that school officials' actions amounted to retaliation, prohibit such reprisals and find that the district violated labor practices.
North Platte Superintendent Larry Ramaekers said legal counsel advised him not to comment on the lawsuits except to say the district does not have a policy requiring teachers call parents before reporting abuse or neglect. District policy does require a supervisor or administrator be notified before a report is made, he said.
He also said the district tries to settle grievances informally before a formal grievance is filed, and that happened in this case but the two sides were unable to come to an agreement.
The lawsuits stem from a March 24 incident at North Platte’s Madison Middle School when a student showed up for school hungry, thirsty and dirty, with a scratch on the side of his face, according to the lawsuit.
The student’s hair was unkempt, he had black, soot-like dirt on the side of his face and “dried, smelly feces” on his palms, wrists and fingernails, according to an employee grievance filed by Copper and Spiehs. The student also appeared hungry and thirsty because he quickly drank a glass of milk and wanted cereal.
After the student arrived at school, the secondary special education director joined Copper and Spiehs in a classroom, and Spiehs called the school resource officer, who assessed the situation, according to the lawsuit. Then Spiehs called the Health and Human Services Child Abuse hotline. The principal and associate principal were aware of the situation, the lawsuit says.
But later that afternoon, Copper and Spiehs got an email from Principal Danny McMurtry saying the student’s father “was not a happy camper” and, barring an immediate threat to the student, in the future they should share concerns with parents first and inform them protocol requires the school notify authorities.
Scott Norby, the attorney representing the North Platte Education Association and the employees, said determining whether a child could be in immediate danger requires making assumptions or investigating, which is the job of police or social service workers.
“It seems to us school employees are reporters not investigators,” he said. “All school employees have a statutory, if not ethical duty, to report suspected child abuse. In this particular case when the child gets off the bus in the condition he was in, to contact the parents potentially places that child in danger.”
Copper and Spiehs met with McMurtry on April 2 and requested the substance of the email be retracted and he confirm in writing the school employees’ right and obligation to report suspected child abuse or neglect without first contacting parents.
McMurtry declined and Ramaekers later told Copper the principal’s email would not be retracted.
On April 15, Copper and Spiehs filed a formal grievance asking for a retraction of the principal’s directive. Administrators denied the grievance. The North Platte Education Association appealed the administrative ruling to the school board, which voted not to act on the appeal.
The lawsuit alleges the district’s refusal to withdraw the directive made by the principal, and the school board’s refusal to deal with it, means all North Platte Teachers Association members must comply with it.
Lincoln Public Schools regulations also require employees to inform their principal or supervisor that they intend to report suspected abuse or make sure a report was made if they don’t do it themselves. LPS policy also says the principal may allow a child to be interrogated without permission of the parents in cases of suspected abuse.
The potential of parents being upset should not impede teachers from reporting suspected abuse, Norby said.
“Teachers are kind of placed between a rock and a hard place,” Norby said. “They have an ethical and legal duty to report ... but they must follow the directives of their administration.”