It might have seemed harmless enough. Some San Jose middle school parents didn’t like the way a physical education teacher and coach was photographing their girls at events.
The principal had told the coach to stop after a similar complaint a year earlier. But after a second complaint, the principal seized the coach’s school-issued computer, confronted him and alerted police, who investigated and last month arrested the former coach on child molestation and pornography charges.
For school officials who, under California law, are required to report suspicions of child abuse to authorities, experts say the lesson is clear: Don’t hesitate to call in the pros at the slightest hint of impropriety and let them investigate it.
“The spirit of the statute is, when in doubt, report,” said William Grimm, directing attorney for child welfare at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland. “The standard is ‘reasonable suspicion.’ School districts, teachers, principals often think, ‘I’ve got to be certain it happened,’ and that’s just not the law.”
Too many times, however, that message doesn’t seem to take with school officials. Police investigate hundreds of child abuse complaints a year, few of which lead to charges. But when school officials, perhaps out of concern for their teachers’ or school’s reputation, try to handle complaints themselves, the results can be tragic and the price for both victims and school officials staggering.