Tensions flare on Shaftsbury school's handling of abuse complaint

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SHAFTSBURY — Tensions came to a head on Wednesday at the Shaftsbury School Board meeting, regarding an incident of alleged child abuse and how it was handled by the administration.

Mike Foley, a citizen who has been critical of principal Jeff Johnson and SVSU superintendent Jim Culkeen and who announced in August that he and his wife had decided to pull their children out of Shaftsbury Elementary School due to fears for their safety, addressed the board during the public comment portion of the meeting. He pointed out that the policy committee has begun reworking Policy #5005, which covers the reporting of suspected child abuse, and asked Culkeen to confirm that there would no longer be investigations of sexual abuse performed at the schools.

"I'm not going to comment on that," replied Culkeen.

"You see, he's so far in the mud, and so far in the muck of things he's said and done in the past that he can't even admit what the policy says, bold-faced, in its first paragraph and something that was unanimously agreed upon in a supervisory union meeting on the policy itself," said Foley, "This is the person who is running our entire supervisory union." The policy Foley mentioned is still being edited and has not yet been released from the policy committee. After that occurs, it will have to be warned and adopted by each board of the SVSU before it becomes an official policy. However, language about the school not conducting investigations was present in the old policy as well.

The incident in question occurred in mid-January, at the elementary school. A child reported to Johnson that she had been made uncomfortable after being touched on the butt and hip by an adult volunteer while students were preparing to leave for an afterschool program. The parents of the child were not notified of the incident for some time after it occurred, which the superintendent said was an error on the part of Johnson, and that the issue had been discussed.

Regarding the lack of a report to DCF, Culkeen wrote to the child's parents, "Concerning the principal's role as a mandated reporter, Mr. Johnson is required to report to DCF if in his mind he reasonably suspects child neglect or abuse. His investigation and that of the Act 1 trainer in his building did not come to that conclusion. I have considered the reporting to DCF and the notification of the incident to you and your wife as separate issues. Based on the information I have, I believe the principal's action in not reporting to DCF appropriate. The principal's action of not notifying you in a timely manner was not proper procedure, and is a topic I will review with all administrators in the SVSU to prevent a repeat lapse in the process that should be followed."

The law, Title 33, Chapter 49, Subchapter 2, Section 4913, reads that all mandated reporters, a class of individual that includes school employees, "who reasonably suspects abuse or neglect of a child shall report in accordance with the provisions of section 4914 of this title within 24 hours of the time information regarding the suspected abuse or neglect was first received or observed." Section 4914 details who the report must be submitted to, in this case either DCF or a law enforcement officer.

When Foley pressed the superintendent, who he said had not given him a straight answer on why the school performed an investigation and did not immediately file a report, Culkeen said that he had answered that question in a letter to Foley, and that while Foley had not liked the answer, an answer had been given.

"Mike, we're not going to keep this up," said board chairman Fran Kinney. When Foley replied that the superintendent was the one "keeping it up," Kinney said, over Foley's objections, "No he's not, he's given you an answer, and I'm cutting you off. We are done. You need to move on.

Foley said that Shaftsbury has a weak board and a weaker chairperson, and said that Culkeen and Johnson are putting children at risk. When Foley and an audience member began debating the amount of information necessary to file a report with DCF, Kinney intervened again, saying, "We can't do this, we've got to move on. We're not going to do this. Mike, you know better."

"Don't tell me what I have to know," said Foley, "You should have known better. You should be sticking up for kids."

"I do," replied Kinney, "More so than you."

Board member Holly Bahan called for a five minute recess of the board, but Kinney denied the motion, saying that they had to move on.

The next item on the agenda was the superintendent's report, but before allowing Culkeen to give his report, Kinney said, "I have to tell you, the superintendent cares more about kids than anybody I've seen. He does his job. He does what he's asked to do, and some people may not like that or agree, and that's okay. Everybody's entitled to their opinion. But he's done his job, he's the man for the job, and he does care about kids a lot."

The Shaftsbury School Board meets the second Wednesday of every month at 6:30 p.m. in the library at Shaftsbury Elementary School. Full recordings of their meetings are available on Catamount Access Television, and on the station's YouTube page.

Contact Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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