Question: Does a school have a statutory duty to report child abuse?
On November 9, 2010, G.G. was a 16 year old student that reported she had been raped in the boys’ bathroom by S.M. At that time, S.M. was also a 16 year old student at the high school. Thereafter, the school and its principal undertook an investigation and conducted interviews that included two assistant principals, the school nurse, several phone calls and the school security reviewing cameras and searching lockers. On November 11, 2010, Officer George Hopper was assigned to investigate the case. Officer Hopper interviewed S.M., the principal, assistant principals and other administrators. At some point, a preliminary examination of G.G.’s clothing indicated positive results for the presence of seminal fluid. Officer Hopper spoke to S.M., and S.M. changed his story from one of denial to one of consensual sex. At that point, Officer Hopper did not believe that he had probable cause to arrest S.M. for rape. On November 15, 2010, S.M. confessed to the offense and was arrested. S.M. subsequently pled guilty and was incarcerated. At some point, Officer Hopper opened an investigation for obstruction of justice. Officer Hopper interviewed several school employees about their investigation, including the principal who had his interview labeled as “obs of Justice”. Thereafter, the State charged him with failure to immediately report child abuse as a class B misdemeanor. The information alleged that on or about November 9, 2010, the principal who had reason to believe that a child may be the victim of child abuse, did knowingly fail to immediately make a report to the Indiana Department of Child Services or a local law enforcement agency… The principal moved to dismiss the case arguing that the statute governing the offense was unconstitutionally void for vagueness, and following a hearing, the court denied the motion and later found him guilty.
On appeal, the Indiana Court of Appeals noted that I.C. § 31–33–5–1 requires an individual “who has reason to believe that a child is a victim of child abuse” to make a report. Further, the amended charging information alleged that the principal had reason to believe that G.G. was a victim of child abuse. The court also observe that the phrase “reason to believe” under I.C. § 31–9–2–101 “means evidence that, if presented to individuals of similar background and training, would cause the individuals to believe that a child was abused or neglected.” The court also noted that I.C. § 31–33–6–1 provides immunity from criminal liability for a person who “makes or causes to be made a report” of child abuse, that immunity does not attach for a person who has acted maliciously or in bad faith under I.C. § 31–33–6–2. An allegation that an individual has engaged in child abuse is a serious claim, and a reasonable investigation made in good faith of such an allegation prior to making a report is not improper and does not deprive the person required to make such a report of statutory immunity. The State of Indiana needed to present evidence which proved the charged offense beyond a reasonable doubt, and not merely present facts which tend to arouse suspicion of guilt, in order to support a conviction and show that the principal had reason to believe, as defined by the Legislature, that G.G. was a victim of child abuse and that he then knowingly failed to immediately report such abuse. Based upon the evidence presented at trial, and keeping in mind that we must strictly construe penal statutes against the State, we conclude that under these specific circumstances there is insufficient evidence of probative value from which the trier of fact could reasonably have found beyond a reasonable doubt that the principal committed the offense charged. Accordingly, we reverse and vacate the conviction for failure to immediately report child abuse as a class B misdemeanor.