COLORADO COMMUNITY MEDIA SPECIAL REPORT

‘I don’t feel safe’: A school’s nightmare

How educators responded to alleged sexual contact by first-graders -- a response that triggered official investigations

Posted
A principal has left the Douglas County School District for another job in education, months after his school became embroiled in a “failure to report” investigation into alleged “sexual contact” by first-grade children at the school.
 
Witness accounts detailed in Douglas County Sheriff’s Office incident reports obtained by Colorado Community Media from officials alleged that young students at Sand Creek Elementary School in Highlands Ranch persuaded and pressured other young students into inappropriate touching and exposing private body parts. Children involved in the alleged incidents were as young as age 6, the reports said.
 
The incidents are believed to have begun in October and continued into February before school staff became aware, according to the incident reports.
 
The case exposed confusion regarding mandatory reporting among school employees, particularly at the administrative level. The school’s assistant principal alleged she repeatedly asked her principal if they should involve law enforcement, while the principal maintained they could handle the situation administratively and directed her to oversee the school’s response, according to the incident reports.
 
The assistant principal grew so distraught about managing the matter internally that she believed she was experiencing secondary trauma, according to interviews and statements from school staff cited in the incident reports.
 
The reports do not say that any adults were involved in sexual contact with children at the school.
 
School district employees named in the investigative reports did not respond to several requests for comment.
 
A Douglas County School District spokesperson provided a statement regarding the investigation on June 26 and asked Colorado Community Media to stop trying to contact the school employees directly about the matter.
 
The district statement said staff members are required to abide by mandatory reporting laws as part of district policy.
 
“Any report involving the well-being and safety of our students is taken seriously. Staff members who do not follow policy will be disciplined as needed, up to and including termination. Additional training may be required for staff members returning to work. In this instance, we proceeded in compliance with our policies,” the statement said.
 
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office opened and closed two investigations into the matter. The investigating detective did not recommend any criminal charges.
 
The first probe looked at what the reports describe as possible “sexual assault” and “unlawful sexual contact” among first-grade students at Sand Creek. The second investigation examined whether staff and administration broke the state’s mandatory reporting law, which is a criminal offense and class 3 misdemeanor.
 
That law requires school officials and employees, among others responsible for children, to immediately report to authorities any suspected child abuse or neglect.
 
School district policies say that employees “shall not contact the child’s family or any other persons to determine the cause of the suspected abuse or neglect.” Those policies also say that “it is not the responsibility of the school official or employee to prove that the child has been abused or neglected.”
 
The district provides mandatory-reporting training for employees and requires reporting when sexual abuse is suspected or alleged among minors.
 
Six Sand Creek administrators and staff members were placed on administrative leave during the investigation, according to the incident reports.
 
They were Principal Casey Whitehurst, Assistant Principal Melissa Reister, first-grade teachers Joanie Smith and Misty Durante, school psychologist Arrah Hall and instructional assistant Wendy Schriener, according to the incident reports.
 
 
‘Alarmingly’ young
 
The sheriff’s office reports show that about three days passed from the time school staff learned of potential misconduct at the school and when administrators reported the incidents.
 
In that time, administrators launched an internal investigation without the help of police or human services until lower-level staff urged them to alert authorities.
 
The principal allegedly advised his assistant principal against reporting the situation repeatedly, believing the school could handle the children’s behavior administratively, according to interviews and statements in the incident reports.
 
Assistant Principal Reister alleged in a statement reviewed by investigators that Principal Whitehurst had stated similar cases were handled internally at his previous school, Cimarron Middle School in Parker, where, according to the Sand Creek website, he served as assistant principal for four years.
 
The principal’s name, image and biography were removed from Sand Creek’s website in June.
 
Staff members told investigators they did not report the incidents because they did not think they knew enough about what happened, or once they did, they assumed administrators already made a report, according to the investigating detective’s reports.
 
The alleged incidents largely took place in school bathrooms, but also on the playground, according to interviews conducted by Reister with students and parents.
 
Children under the age of 10 are too young to face criminal charges, according to the incident reports.
 
Included in the reports was an email from Sand Creek School Resource Officer Vance Fleet to a DCSO sergeant in which he remarked that the children involved were “alarmingly” young.
 
“There seems to be one (redacted)-year-old (redacted) student driving this behavior. (Redacted) came from (redacted) and it sounds like there were similar incidents that occurred there that were never disclosed to the school after (redacted) transferred,” Fleet wrote.
 
The sheriff’s office did not conduct a criminal investigation into the children’s behavior because of their ages and instead assisted with a Douglas County Department of Human Services investigation, according to the incident reports.
 
Principal not interviewed
 
The detective leading the “failure to report” investigation, Detective Kristen Tinsley, did not interview the principal or assistant principal before closing the case, she wrote.
 
An attorney for Reister, the assistant principal, would not permit her to speak with law enforcement, according to Tinsley’s report. But investigators said they did obtain a 15-page statement Reister authored, detailing how the school responded day-by-day after learning of the incidents.
 
Principal Whitehurst did not return the detective’s calls and the case was closed without his participation, Tinsley wrote.
 
A spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office said Tinsley consulted with the district attorney’s office and Tinsley’s supervisors, ultimately deciding against filing criminal charges “since she could not prove that the principal had any information that he neglected to report.”
 
The sheriff’s spokeswoman said Whitehurst was not required to respond to Tinsley’s attempts to contact him.
 
Tinsley said in the incident report that Whitehurst’s handling of the matter was the most difficult to scrutinize under the mandatory reporting law, which states mandatory reporters can face criminal charges if they “willfully” fail to comply with the statute.
 
“This investigation resulted in a gray area when it came to the decision to charge Casey (Whitehurst). I cannot ethically charge someone when I am not able to completely articulate the appropriateness of the charge,” Tinsley wrote.
 
She also said the children’s alleged behavior at school was “either consensual or non-criminal.” This meant that the statute defining abuse and neglect would not have been violated by any failure to report the situation because the children’s behavior was not “unlawful sexual behavior,” she wrote.
 
Tinsley concluded her investigation, saying she was uncertain whether Whitehurst’s belief that the school did not need to report the incidents met the standard of willfully failing to report suspected abuse or neglect.
 
“Without being able to speak to Casey (Whitehurst), I cannot articulate if he told (Reister) that the incident didn’t need to be reported because he mistakenly believed the kids’ young age made a difference in the need to report, or if he willfully violated the statute,” Tinsley wrote.
 
She did not recommend charging the assistant principal because of the pressure Reister felt from Whitehurst’s instructions, the detective wrote.
 
Tinsley did not recommend charges against other school staff members because they thought school administrators reported the situation, according to Tinsley’s report.
 
A public-records request to the school district for the administrators’ and staff members’ employment status showed Whitehurst submitted his resignation notice on March 30 with a departure date of June 30. Whitehurst did not state his reason for resigning in the email beyond seeking other opportunities. He remained on leave through June, according to the district.
 
Whitehurst in March was named the principal of a middle school in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, according to a report in the Wisconsin Dells Events newspaper. A native of nearby Reedsburg, according to the paper, Whitehurst was slated to start work with the Wisconsin Dells School District in July and to take the helm at Wisconsin Dells Middle School in September.
 
Reister, Smith, Durante, Hall and Schriener were back on active status as of June, according to the district.
 
‘Bigger than we thought’
 
According to interviews Tinsley conducted with the first-grade teachers, and emails included in the incident report, the school was first tipped off to the alleged incidents around noon on Feb. 17. A parent emailed Smith, the first-grade teacher, stating a student was asked to perform a sexual act at school.
 
Smith forwarded the complaint to the school administration, according to emails included in the incident reports. Whitehurst responded shortly before 8 p.m. on Feb. 17, saying “we will definitely look into the situation tomorrow.”
 
Durante, another first-grade teacher, said she helped Smith forward the parent’s email to administration at the school on Feb. 18, according to the incident report. She did not know details of the situation, she said in a March 6 interview with Tinsley, only that two students were suspended and no longer allowed to use the restroom alone.
 
Smith told law enforcement she knew the email was serious but she did not believe the physical act described in the parent’s email took place, Tinsley wrote.
 
At Whitehurst’s direction, Reister, the assistant principal, began internally investigating the allegations on Feb. 18 in order to compile an incident report and disciplinary plan, Reister’s statement said.
Reister’s 15-page account obtained by investigators said she felt uncomfortable doing this because of the students’ ages, but followed her superior’s instructions.
 
Between 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 18, Reister conducted several student interviews during which children informed her they had been asked to show private body parts and had engaged in inappropriate touching, according to her statement.
 
Some students reported that they complied with requests while others did not, according to Reister’s statement.
 
Reister was told that incidents occurred as far back as October and the most recent incident occurred roughly one week earlier, according to her statement.
 
Reister did not yet report her findings to law enforcement or child protective services, she said. At 10:35 a.m. on the 18th, according to her statement, she was leaving for a doctor’s appointment and ran into Whitehurst on her way out.
 
“I pulled him aside for a moment and told him this was bigger than we thought and shared my concerns. I also informed him that there was touching, and I was getting uncomfortable interviewing or speaking with the students,” Reister’s statement said.
 
In a 1 p.m. meeting that day, Reister’s statement said, the principal instructed her to classify her incident report as “sexual misconduct,” which her statement said was a classification that did not require involving law enforcement. The principal did not believe they needed to contact authorities, she said.
 
“He said this is his warning and that if it occurs again, we will contact the police and go that route as (redacted) now knows better,” Reister’s statement said.
 
‘Broken hearted’
 
The afternoon of Feb. 18, Reister said she resumed interviewing students and identified two students she believed to be instigating the behavior among classmates, her statement said. By 3:45 p.m. that day, two students were placed initially on a one-day suspension.
 
Smith, the first-grade teacher, told investigators that Reister pulled students from class and eventually held a couple children in the office the remainder of the day, according to Tinsley’s report.
 
Smith “assumed that Casey and Melissa,” the principal and assistant principal, reported the incident because they were speaking to children, the incident report said. She never asked them if they made a report and did not think to report it herself because “she didn’t have all of the details,” the incident report said.
 
“She and Misty (Durante) were broken hearted to learn that four students had been involved and that not one of them came to a trusted adult to tell them what was going on,” the incident report said.
 
At the time of her March 2 interview with Tinsley, Smith said she still did not have the full story, Tinsley wrote.
 
The detective wrote in her reports that, “During our conversation, I told Joanie (Smith) that the incident was reported to authorities on Thursday (2/20/2020). Joanie immediately started crying and said, ‘Thursday?’” the incident report said.
 
Hall, the school psychologist, said the principal had asked her the afternoon of Feb. 18 to give the first grade a presentation after students were caught “misbehaving in the bathroom,” according to her interview with Tinsley.
 
Whitehurst did not give Hall specific directions or context for the presentation, she said, so she spoke to the class on Feb. 19 about “telling vs. tattling” and appropriate behaviors, according to the incident report.
 
Included in the incident report was an email that Hall wrote for parents about the presentation, which was sent and signed by Smith.
 
“Some of our students have been struggling with appropriate social choices throughout the unstructured parts of our day and we feel that it has opened an opportunity for us to do some instruction around social behaviors at school,” the email said.
 
Hall told investigators she was not provided with full details of the incidents involving children until Feb. 24.
 
Reister returned to school on Feb. 19 and began investigating another incident in the first grade that later proved related to the previous day’s interviews.
 
In the course of these interviews, Reister again learned students were being asked by a peer to show one another private body parts. One reported being asked to show private body parts a few times since Thanksgiving, her statement said.
 
“I don’t feel safe with (redacted) because (redacted) just keeps wanting me to do it and I won’t. I’m afraid (redacted) won’t play with me or be my friend. ... I’m uncomfortable because I’m thinking about it,” a student said, according to Reister’s statement.
 
Reister said she conducted more student interviews and later approached Whitehurst, telling him “this seems like it is steamrolling and getting bigger with (redacted) at the center of my concerns,” according to her statement.
 
Reister asked to extend that child’s suspension, her statement said, and she told Whitehurst she felt uncomfortable allowing the student back into school and that student victims appeared traumatized, according to her statement.
 
Whitehurst said they could not block the child’s access to education but might be able to keep the student in the office, Reister’s statement said.
 
‘I was terrified to tell him’
 
The morning of Feb. 20, Reister held a “re-entry” meeting with the suspended students and their families, according to her statement.
 
District policy requires administrators meet with the parents or guardians of a suspended student before readmitting the student to school.
 
One of the students was kept in the principals’ offices the remainder of the day and the other was taken back to class in the first grade, according to her statement. Each was given a bathroom safety plan, Reister’s statement said.
 
After those meetings, Reister said she spoke with an individual about similar incidents that allegedly took place during an off-campus playdate, her statement said. Reister told the person they should report the incidents because they happened at home and provided them information for School Resource Officer Fleet and Child Protective Services, her statement said.
 
“At this moment, I began to realize Casey (Whitehurst) has been giving me the wrong advice and I need to report this even without his (Whitehurst’s) permission,” Reister, referring to the alleged at-school incidents, wrote in her statement.
 
She then spoke with school social worker Keri Morton, who pushed her to report the matter, Reister’s statement said.
 
“(Morton) helped me to immediately call (School Resource) Officer Fleet to report and then call CPS to provide them with the report as well. Prior to Officer Fleet leaving he reminded me of immediate reporting, mandatory reporting, etc.,” Reister’s statement said.
 
Fleet instructed Reister “not to do anything again or any interviews moving forward,” her statement said.
 
Tinsley interviewed Morton as a witness and not a suspect, the incident report said.
 
Morton received a text from Reister on Feb. 19 asking about resources for students “regarding some sort of exposure,” she told Tinsley. Morton said she “trusted she was talking to a mandated reporter” -- Reister -- “so she assumed everything was handled,” according to the incident reports.
 
Morton asked Whitehurst on Feb. 20 to explain what was happening in the school, Morton told the detective, according to the incident report.
 
Morton said Whitehurst told her the school did not need to report the incidents because the incidents happened in November, according to the incident report. Morton did not say anything to him because he was her boss, Tinsley wrote, but she believed he was wrong.
 
Morton then asked Hall, the school psychologist, if she reported the incident, and after learning Hall did not, found Reister, according to her interview with Tinsley.
 
“Melissa (Reister) told her from start to finish what had been going on in in the building. Keri (Morton) told her to call it in ‘now.’ Melissa ‘melted’ and said that she’d been carrying it and didn’t know what to do,” Tinsley wrote in the incident report.
 
After reporting the incidents to Fleet and child protective services, Reister called Whitehurst, her statement said.
 
“I was terrified to tell him because I thought he was going to reprimand me for going over his head and doing what he told me not to do,” Reister said in her statement.
 
Whitehurst was not upset, she said, and said she was doing the right thing but he did not believe the incidents needed to be reported, according to her statement.
 
“He also said it happened back in November,” Reister’s statement said, but she corrected him, reminding him there were alleged incidents one week earlier and that she learned students intended to involve more children in the coming days.
 
“I told you that,” Reister said, according to her statement.
 
‘Try seeing the faces’
 
The day after Reister reported the incidents, the vice principal said she and Whitehurst continued debating if the child she suspected of instigating the behavior should be allowed back to school, her statement said. Both first-grade teachers expressed concern about allowing the child back to class, her statement said.
 
Reister also fielded a call from a parent concerned about the suspended children returning to class, her statement said. Reister and Whitehurst agreed to ask Fleet’s advice, according to Reister’s statement.
 
Fleet agreed to research the issue and again reminded the administrators not to investigate or to speak with any students about the incidents and to immediately call him or police for assistance, Reister’s statement said.
 
Still that day, Reister and Whitehurst met with an individual who was upset that the school’s email to parents about the incidents was “vague” and “misdirected,” Reister’s statement said.
 
“(Redacted) felt it downplayed what inappropriate behaviors were taking place in the first grade and didn’t address the real concerns for students,” Reister wrote.
 
After the meeting ended, Reister said Whitehurst remarked, “That was hard.” Reister responded by reminding him she had been “dealing with this alone all week.”
 
“Try seeing the faces of our first-grade babies as I ask them if they feel safe and their expression viscerally changes and they say no because of a fear of (redacted) coming back,” Reister said, according to her statement.
 
On Feb. 23, several days after the school first learned of the incidents, Whitehurst told Reister that parents were calling for his immediate resignation, according to her statement.
 
As the two prepared for a meeting with parents, Whitehurst told her they needed to be strong, that they could not answer certain questions and they should not get emotional, according to her statement. He urged her to remain a “united front” and said they would “fight this battle together,” her statement said.
 
At 2:46 p.m. that day, Whitehurst called Reister about the meeting with parents, her statement said.
 
“I don’t know what to do. I am at a loss right now. Biggest thing is to document certain things outside of google docs,” Reister’s statement quoted Whitehurst as saying. “I don’t know why we didn’t call (the Department of Human Services). That is what I keep going back to in my mind.”

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