Star-Telegram, May 1, 1998
Accused of failure to report suspected abuse by colleague--Charges filed against 2 Fort Worth educators
By Chris Vaughn, Staff Writer
FORT WORTH -- The Tarrant County district attorney's office filed formal misdemeanor charges yesterday against two Sagamore Hill Elementary School administrators accused of ignoring reports that a child may have been molested by a teacher at the campus.
The Class B misdemeanor charges against Principal Sherry Breed and Assistant Principal Hilaria Ruiz were assigned to Judge Mike Mitchell's county criminal court. A conviction could carry a maximum punishment of six months in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Ruiz' attorney said the case is not nearly as straightforward as it may seem and expressed confidence that his client will prevail in a trial.
"I believe this falls into that gray area," attorney Albert Perez said. "There were other allegations later, but that wasn't what was reported to her. What was reported by the mother was just nebulous. There wasn't any clear-cut accusations of wrongdoing."
Breed's attorney, Tim White, did not comment on specifics, but said: "We intend to let this go to court. When all the facts come out, I'm confident she will be acquitted."
Assistant District Attorney David Montague declined to comment about the evidence in the case.
Breed and Ruiz are accused of failing to tell police or Child Protective Services that a mother told them twice that her child might have seen a teacher molesting a student. The teacher, Modesto Rodriguez, was already under investigation on accusations of sexual abuse of another child. He ]has since been convicted of aggravated sexual assault in that case and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
It is unusual, authorities said, to file a charge of not reporting allegations of abuse, although they could not give precise numbers of such cases. Longtime Fort Worth school district officials say they can't remember it ever happening to an educator.
Prosecutors say it is more common for family members to be accused of not reporting child abuse.
"It's quite rare and has to be a pretty blatant situation, where obviously the person was aware and failed to report," said Michael Beene, a program director with CPS.
CPS officials estimate that the number of reports from employees of the Fort Worth school district has doubled since the police opened their investigation of Breed and Ruiz and stern reminders were issued by Superintendent Thomas Tocco.
"We're now receiving an enormous amount of referrals from throughout the region," agency spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said. "Referrals from all school districts have steadily increased throughout the year, and we estimate that referrals from the Fort Worth ISD have doubled in the last few weeks."
CPS could not pinpoint the exact number it has received but the district typically reports about 70 to 110 suspected cases a month. CPS expects reports to surpass that number for the next several months.
"This heightens awareness, especially if there are consequences to individuals," Beene said. "It scares people that they could be violating a law, so any of those gray areas, they're reporting."
In 1965, the Legislature passed a law making it a misdemeanor for physicians to not report suspected child abuse or neglect. The law has been changed several times over the years, most notably changing the wording to say "any person" must report his suspicions to authorities.
The law specifically names several categories of people -- teachers, physicians, nurses, day-care workers and probation officers among them -- who must report allegations or suspicions within 48 hours.
Although teachers say there are times when it is obvious that what they see or hear in school should be reported to police or CPS, they also contend that sometimes the decisions are not so easy.
Beene agreed that there is still "some confusion" and plenty of judgment calls, but he said that CPS has tried to clarify the law in training sessions and memos to school personnel.
Perez repeated his wish to have the trial this summer, so Ruiz can have the opportunity to return to school this fall. Ruiz and Breed are both on paid administrative leave.
While Perez said the intent of the law is admirable, he believes that there is too much wiggle room for people to make honest mistakes.
"Judging from the feelings I'm getting within the community, I get some good vibes about what a jury would do," Perez said. "From what I've read and heard, people aren't too comfortable with what's happening to my client."
`Chris Vaughn, (817) 390-7547'