In 2012, a kindergarten student at Community School of Excellence walked into class one morning with a big black eye. His teacher demanded to know what happened. The student explained: mom’s boyfriend had thrown a fist in his face and beaten him with a guitar.
The teacher’s instinct was to alert Child Protection Services, her legal responsibility as a mandated reporter. She told the St. Paul charter school’s superintendent, Mo Chang, that she knew in her gut and in her heart that this child was being abused at home.
Chang told the teacher not to report it. She said she would take it on herself to call the child’s mother and corroborate the child’s tale. The mother denied it. The child returned home.
Two months later, he returned to school with the same sort of injuries and the same explanation. It turned out that his mother was also being abused, and had called police on the boyfriend the night before. Police notified Child Protection.
The child’s teacher took both mother and son into her own home, where they stayed for about a month before they got back on their feet.
Community School of Excellence is an international baccalaureate charter school with a Hmong culture focus. In the eight years since its founding, enrollment at the K-8 has risen from 175 to nearly 1,000 students.
In the last few years, the school has come under fire for multiple failures to report suspected child abuse. In 2013, the Minnesota Department of Education called for an investigation into allegations that the superintendent was interfering with and reprimanding teachers who contacted Child Protection.
The subsequent report by Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney found that school staff feared reporting suspected abuse to Chang because she would get upset and yell at them, or she’d contact the families directly and try to investigate the situation for herself.
One case that informed the investigation occurred in May 2013. When second grade teacher Megan Deutschman noticed that a student was looking sickly, she accompanied that student to the nurse’s office. En route, the student told her about “an incident that, if true, would constitute clearly reportable child abuse.” The nurse noted injuries consistent with the child’s story.
Deutschman emailed Chang to say she would be calling Child Protection Services. On May 17, according to a lawsuit Deutschman later filed, Chang ordered her into the administrative offices. Chang scolded Deutschman for going to Child Protection without her permission. Later, Chang notified the child’s parents, called Deutschman down from her classroom, and forced her to confront them despite her protests, according to the complaint.
St. Paul Police, who opened a criminal investigation into Community School of Excellence’s mandated reporting issues last year, say they’re just wrapping up. Their next step is to submit their findings to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office for possible charges.
For Chang’s part, she regards the whole Deutschman case as an unfortunate mix-up. She said the parents accused of child abuse reached out to her, not the other way around. The parents were the ones who wanted a chance to sit down with Deutschman and the nurse.
“I was trying to facilitate that meeting with the teacher and when the teacher came down to the office, the first thing she saw was me with the parents,” Chang says. “I think she assumed that I’d called the parents to come in to confront her about the child abuse situation.”
Chang says that prior to 2012, Community School of Excellence’s policy was that if anybody in the building suspected child abuse, they would report it to her first. She would try to get first-hand information, and then she could place the call to Child Protection.
She would take that extra precaution because more than 90 percent of the students speak English as a second language and language barriers could prevent some teachers from getting the full story. In addition, Hmong families have certain cultural practices that may leave marks that could be mistaken for abuse to the untrained eye, Chang says.
“For example, it’s common in our culture that when a child is sick, the parents rub a silver bar on their forehead, their arms, their feet as a treatment,” she says. “Sometimes, that leaves marks that look like little bruises. Sometimes, people see those marks as signs of abuse and immediately call Child Protection Services.”
Chang says Community School of Excellence changed its reporting policy in 2012, after the Minnesota Department of Education made clear that it preferred to have staff call in potential abuse first and let the administration know later. At the same time, Chang defended the original policy, explaining that the school had checked it over with Ramsey County Child Protection Services.
“You contacted Child Protection directly without following the above procedure of consulting with me … It is appropriate that staff members coordinate with administration of their schools prior to a report being submitted of child neglect or physical or sexual abuse,” she wrote in one official reprimand to a teacher.
Cynthia Hassan of Ramsey County Child Protection denies that her department would approve any school policy that made administrators primary investigators.
“And just because you don’t have access to an administrator doesn’t mean you’re off the hook and don’t have to make a report until you have that access,” Hassan says, stressing that in any case teachers must make a verbal report within 24 hours of discovering the suspected abuse and a written report within 72 hours. “There’s nothing in the law that says you need permission from your boss to make a Child Protection report.”
Attorney Tom McEllistrem weighed in for Chang, criticizing “contradictory language” in Minnesota’s mandated reporting statute. Though schools are required to call without delay, the statute also penalizes reckless reporting, he says.
“A reporter has to have a reasonable belief that something actually happened, particularly when it’s something like a comment or a statement from an individual asserting some sort of abuse is occurring,” McEllistrem says. “Best practices tell us we should always put our heads together, put multiple people together to see if we’re reading a situation right."
Though Chang remains in charge of Community School of Excellence, she no longer gets involved in suspected abuse situations, she says. Still, staff say failed reporting issues persist to this day.
One former Community School of Excellence employee recalls that just this past school year, a child turned up with blatant injuries. At least five adults, including members of the school’s executive team, were in the know. No one called Child Protection until the guidance counselor returned from leave and alerted police. Days had passed. Child Protection workers were incensed.
“We can’t do that,” says the ex-employee, who also asked to remain anonymous. “We can’t gather information, we don’t investigate, we have to report. It seemed suspicious. We’ve had history with this parent. It should have been reported.”