By Tracey Kaplan
Posted: 11/05/2012 04:53:55 PM PST
Updated: 11/05/2012 09:50:09 PM PST
SAN JOSE ‑ In a verdict hailed by child-abuse experts, a jury Monday found a principal guilty of the extremely rare charge of failing to report suspected sexual abuse to authorities, despite being told by an 8-year-old girl in vivid and explicit detail about a possible sexual act a teacher performed on her.
The conviction of former O.B. Whaley Elementary School principal Lyn Vijayendran was only the second time in two decades that Santa Clara County prosecutors had brought such a misdemeanor charge ‑ and the first time they’d won.
Vijayendran, 36, dabbed at her eyes with a tissue while the clerk read the guilty verdict.
She later wept when Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Deborah Ryan took the unusual step of immediately sentencing her.
“I agree with the jury’s verdict,” Ryan told Vijayendran. “You did what you thought was right ... but I do think you made a very bad judgment that day.”
Vijayendran faced up to six months in jails and a $1,000 fine. But noting the principal’s spotless record, the judge sentenced her instead to two years on court probation. She also ordered her to perform 100 hours of community service, preferably by training educators to comply with California’s mandated-reporter law.
The verdict came as relief to child-abuse experts, who were worried when the jury announced Friday that it was stuck after deliberating for less than six hours. The vote was stalled 8-4 in what jurors later said was in favor of conviction.
A mistrial “would have sent the wrong message,” said Margaret Petros, a commissioner on the Child Abuse Council of Santa Clara County. “This verdict is important for all mandated reporters to heed. There are so many who don’t take it seriously.”
It was unclear Monday whether Vijayendran’s school district, Evergreen Elementary, had gotten the message. The district, which has been sued by alleged victims of the teacher, Craig Chandler, hadn’t trained Vijayendran
or the human resources director she consulted in how to carry out their legal obligation to report suspected abuse or neglect, both women testified.
In a statement late Monday, the district said it “understands that the jury in the trial of Ms. Vijayendran had a very difficult decision to make and while we are disappointed with the outcome we respect the process and remain committed to our mission of working to ensure that each of our students receives a high-quality education in a safe and nurturing environment. We will continue to work with our community to accomplish this.”
School districts in California are technically required to provide training for educators, but can avoid doing so by simply submitting a letter explaining why they didn’t.
Prosecutor Alison Filo said the District Attorney’s Office made the rare decision to try Vijayendran because her lack of judgment in October 2011 had devastating consequences. Another child reported being molested in a similar fashion by the same teacher about three months later.
Chandler was subsequently arrested in January and ultimately charged with committing lewd and lascivious acts on five children. Tests by the Santa Clara County crime lab found his semen on a classroom chair. The 35-year-old teacher, in jail pending his trial, faces a maximum sentence of 75 years to life if he is convicted.
“The bigger picture is we want mandated reporters to understand to always err on the side of caution and report, never investigate,” Filo said.
The only other case in the past two decades involved allegations in 1999 that the head of Hillbrook School in Los Gatos failed to report a bruise on the face of a student. A judge ultimately dismissed the case.
Some argue violators are rarely prosecuted because the law works as intended: Those who are supposed to report suspicions do. Others, including many child-abuse experts, disagree.
Several jurors said they reached consensus after listening to the court reporter read back some of the testimony.
Juror Kathy Eriksen called the case “tragic,” but said the verdict was “absolutely necessary” to ensure educators, coaches and other mandated reporters don’t shirk their obligation.
The jurors all felt for Vijayendran, a relatively young principal who had consulted with the head of human resources and was told to question the teacher. But the administrator left the ultimate decision about what to do up to Vijayendran.
Juror Christina Rodriguez, who initially voted to acquit the principal, said, “There’s a lot more people to be blamed for this. She’s a good person. We all saw that.”
In the end, the strongest evidence against the principal were her own notes from interviewing the child. The girl told the principal that Chandler blindfolded her in a room with no one else there, made her lie down on the classroom floor, told her to open her legs, touched her feet with something that felt like a tongue, inserted something gooey in her mouth and then wiggled her head around until she tasted a salty liquid. Chandler told Vijayendran that he called the girl into the classroom to prepare a lesson on Helen Keller, which he had been using for years.
Juror Susan LaGaffa said the incident was obviously sexual and the teacher’s explanation ludicrous.
“I think she didn’t want this ugly thing to be true,” LaGaffa said. “But when you have responsibility for hundreds of children, you can’t afford to drop the ball.”
Posted by Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg at 11/06/2012
"Rebbes will train educators to comply with "mandated-reporter law
Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg