The arrests of a middle-school administrator and counselor in March shocked Tucsonans — especially school employees.
But maybe we should have been thinking more about the arrest that followed.
The administrator and counselor have been charged with failing to report possible sexual abuse to police. Roberts-Naylor K-8 School vice principal Bernadette Rosthenhausler and counselor Linda Archuleta are facing a Class 6 felony charge for leaving it up to the parent of the victim in the March 1 incident whether to call police.
State law and district policy say that teachers and other school employees must report suspected abuse to police or the Department of Child Safety. The law is designed to protect kids from adult abusers but also seems to apply to acts committed by kids.
The lesser known part of the story is that the mother of the girl who was the victim pressed the case vigorously when the school employees didn’t. Tucson police responded, interviewed witnesses, decided there was probable cause a crime had been committed and arrested the 12-year-old boy March 20, accusing him of sexual abuse, a felony.
From what I knew of the case previously, I was surprised by the boy’s arrest, so I requested the police reports.
They make it clear what happened in the short period when their teacher was out of the room March 1, but what remains harder to tell is whether an arrest and a criminal case in the juvenile justice system was the best way to address the boy’s behavior.
Students in the middle-school classroom said the boy walked over to the girl to get something from her and stared at her, the reports say. She asked “Do you have a staring problem,” and he reached out and touched her breast over her clothes.
I had heard previously that the boy “grabbed” her breast, but the students the police talked to didn’t say that. Some even suggested the touching might have been accidental. The report says the victim herself “thought it may have been an accident, but since (the boy) did not apologize she stated he did it on purpose.” But it also says the boy admitted to school administrators he had done it on purpose.
In any case, it’s clear in the reports that some violent grabbing happened next. Three boys jumped the one who had touched the girl’s breast. The names are blacked out in the report.
“Three students (names redacted) then began to assault (name redacted). The three choked (name redacted) until he turned red and purple as well as stabbed (name redacted) with a pencil.”
When the girl’s mother — I’m leaving her name out in order not to identify the girl — showed up at school to discuss the incident, Archuleta gave her the number for police and said the mother would need to call if she wanted to press charges. She did. The next day, the mother came back to school and confronted Rosthenhausler and Archuleta with the TUSD guidelines showing they were required to call police.
It appears she was right, as I reported in March — TUSD policies and state law say so.
Later in March, police informed the boy’s mother they were going to arrest him. The mother, an immigrant from the Eastern Bloc whom I also am not naming, was incredulous. The officer who informed her wrote:
She “told me several student in the classroom put (name redacted) in a headlock and one student put a pencil to (name redacted) neck.” Another student, she said, told the boy “his brother has a gun and is going to get him.”
The mother, the officer wrote, “asked me if I was going to open up cases against the other student. I advised her I was not and that information would be documented and forwarded to the Pima County Attorney’s Office for review.”
Indeed, the Pima County Attorney’s Office is still reviewing the case of the boy who touched the girl’s breast and has not decided whether to press charges, chief criminal deputy Kellie Johnson told me. But the felony charges against the counselor and administrator remain, and they have had a profound effect.
There’s been a “dramatic increase in phone calls to police from scared teachers, scared counselors” when a student does something that could be construed as needing to be reported, interim TUSD superintendent Gabriel Trujillo told me. “There’s been some anxiety or nervousness on the part of our staff.”
I asked a Tucson Police Department spokesman, Sgt. Pete Dugan, how police decide whether to make an arrest amid this surge in reports by school employees to police.
“When you have a specific crime against a specific person and it’s definitely a criminal act … at that point we have the duty to make the arrest,” he said.
True enough, but when do you let schools handle the discipline, I asked.
“If we get notified and you’ve got a family member who wants to press charges against the other person, and there’s been a criminal act that’s been committed, we don’t leave it up to the school at that point,” he said.
Of course, that reasoning would also seem to apply to the boys who attacked the boy who touched the girl’s breast, but police never considered arresting them, the reports show.
I asked TUSD board member Adelita Grijalva, who runs the county juvenile court’s Teen Court program, about the difficulty deciding when in-school discipline is necessary and when police intervention is a good thing. She said that even when police do get involved, prosecutors often decide not to pursue the case anyway, something that prosecutor Johnson also confirmed to me.
One of the key factors in whether an arrest occurs is often whether a parent pushes the cases and wants charges pressed, she said. That seems to me an awfully subjective way to make a decision that could follow a child the rest of his life.
In most cases, “If we really want to do prevention and diversion, an arrest is not necessary,” Grijalva said. “We can get to helping the child without an arrest at all.”
In 2013 and 2014, Pima County Juvenile Court worked with local school districts and police agencies to reduce referrals to the court from schools for behaviors that could best be dealt with in school.
“The purpose is not to minimize or ignore behavior, but to address it at the appropriate level,” court representatives said in a statement.
With more TUSD staffers calling police out of fear of being arrested themselves, though, more arrests of students are likely — for now.
Trujillo said the district and Tucson police have set up a committee that will begin meeting this week to establish clearer guidelines as to what misbehavior will be handled by police and what will be handled by the district.
As this case showed, we need that.