Chesterfield Chief questions policies after preschool assaults went unreported: 'It's frustrating'

Posted at 6:09 PM, Apr 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-20 18:49:36-04

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va -- Chesterfield Police Chief Jeffrey Katz said he hoped local policies and state law would change after Chesterfield Public Schools did not report to law enforcement several incidents involving a teacher allegedly assaulting five preschool students.

“It’s difficult for us because we can't deal with a situation we're not aware of, and the fact of the matter is we want to be aware of and involved in as much as possible from a communications standpoint or a relationship-building standpoint," Katz said during an interview with CBS 6 Thursday. “If we're not aware of a situation, we can't help, and so it's frustrating for us.”

Court documents showed a teacher at Chester Early Childhood Learning Academy, in November 2022, allegedly assaulted children under the age of five by spanking them, grabbing their necks, pulling them to the floor, and smacking their faces.

A search warrant showed the school filed a report of the allegations with Child Protective Services, but not with Chesterfield Police.

Child Protective Services also did not notify law enforcement, police said.

Months later, in March 2023, the school allowed the teacher to return to work. That's when police said an upset parent notified law enforcement.

Police investigated, arrested the teacher, and charged her with 12 counts of assault and battery, which are Class 1 misdemeanors.

During their investigation, police found another Child Protective Services report involving the same teacher. That incident was documented to have occurred in August 2022.

According to court records, the school issued the teacher a reprimand, but police said they were not notified of that incident either.

Looking at the big picture, Katz said he's noticed that schools are now reporting fewer incidents to the police department.

“Interestingly, we've seen less incidents coming to the police department. We've also seen a massive spike in targeted violence throughout the country," Katz said. "I can't say that it's necessarily correlated, but what I can say is, I think we've all observed that."

Right now, state code only requires principals to report felonies and specific misdemeanors, such as written threats, that occur on school property to law enforcement.

Assaults, which are misdemeanors, do not have to be reported to the police.

The Democratic-controlled Virginia General Assembly raised the standard for mandatory reporting to law enforcement in 2020.

Lawmakers aimed to limit student interaction with police amid a push for restorative justice in schools, citing the school-to-prison pipeline.

Katz said he felt the move was "well-intended but misguided" and the notion that police were arresting juveniles for minor offenses was "false."

Additionally, he said the change has led to unintended consequences.

“I really think that legislative intent was about letting kids be kids. Kids get involved in fights all the time," Katz said. “I don't think the legislative intent was ever to protect adults who commit misdemeanors on school property. I think there's a reasonable obligation to notify police or the authorities when something like that happens.”

State code sets the bare minimum standard for mandatory reporting.

School boards, the elected officials who govern local schools, still have the authority to make their own policies.

Currently, the Chesterfield School Board has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Chesterfield Police Department. The MOU lays out the expectations of how the two agencies work together. The MOU does not state that this type of assault must be reported to the police.

"It's always an option," Katz said when asked if the MOU could be reworked. "You can always do more than the code requires you to do. So, the code does not require police notification on misdemeanors, but our agreement could include where the schools would notify us of misdemeanors. Of course, that's up to them."

Chesterfield School Board policy on reporting acts of violence also does not require this type of assault to be reported to the police.

At a recent school board work session, Tyler Layne questioned Chesterfield School Board members about the policy. The board members declined to speak on the matter.

"I mean, who would ever think that something like this would happen, right? But now that it has happened, it gives [the school board] an opportunity to reflect on that possibility, and then hopefully take action that will protect kids in the future," Katz said.

Jeff Katz and Tyler Layne

“Do you feel like action should be taken, that there does need to be a change that comes from this?” Layne asked.

“From my vantage point, I would like to see it," Katz responded. “I think this is something that happened in a blind spot, and hopefully it will compel some action.”

"Is there a message that you would want to put out to the parents involved in this case or any of the parents who are watching this and have concerns?" Layne asked.

"I would just say get involved. Learn what the policies are. Everything is public. Read the MOU, read the school board policy. If you want to see change, reach out to your elected representative and demand change," he said.

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email to send a tip.

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