7 key questions following the Violet LeMar trial

Dan McGowan
Principal Violet LeMar in court_623746

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence elementary school principal convicted in District Court of failing to contact the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families after students approached her with accusations that a physical education teacher touched them inappropriately has already appealed her case to Superior Court.

But while the case of Harry Kizirian Elementary School principal Violet LeMar makes its way through the legal system, here’s a look at some of the most frequently asked questions that weren’t answered during her first trial.Will anyone else be charged in the Providence investigation?

There isn’t a clear answer to this question. Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said in October the investigation was complete, but during her closing arguments on Friday prosecutor Ania Zielinski left open the possibility that others could face criminal or civil penalties. On the witness stand last week, Providence police detective Brian Dyer stopped short of saying the investigation was closed, explaining that he couldn’t answer attorney Thomas Gulick’s question without discussing the case with the attorney general’s office. We do know that no fewer than 10 school employees were aware of the students’ accusations against their gym teacher last May. Most of them did not have the same firsthand conversations with students that LeMar did, but the law does not specifically say whether first-hand conversations are a requirement. Amy Kempe, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, declined to comment.Aren’t all adults in Rhode Island considered mandatory reporters?

Yes, but LeMar was charged under a specific provision in the law that focused on “education programs” – like schools – that was approved in 2016. In the past, sexual abuse allegations against school employees would have been dealt with “solely by the police,” according to Kerri White, a spokesperson for DCYF. Now the law clearly states that “any person who has reasonable cause to know or suspect that any child has been the victim of sexual abuse by an employee, agent, contractor, or volunteer of an educational program” must contact DCYF within 24 hours after they become aware of the allegations.

Didn’t multiple officials say they weren’t familiar with the DCYF reporting law?

On the witness stand, the superintendent of Providence schools, the department’s head of human resources and the executive director of elementary schools all testified that they were unaware of the changes to the law prior to the LeMar incident. While that may be true, there is at least some evidence that the R.I. Department of Education sent a reminder to school officials. In a field memo he wrote in December 2016 (Item #17), Education Commissioner Ken Wagner reminded school leaders that they were required to post notice about a DCYF hotline. The memo also made it clear that everyone is a mandated reporter.Is there any chance the state law will be changed?

In an interview last week, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza told Eyewitness News the city will ask the General Assembly to modify the state law, but he didn’t explain what changes he would like to see. He said he doesn’t think lawmakers “fully appreciated all of the downstream consequences” the reporting requirement created. He appeared to be referencing the large spike in school employees being referred to DCYF for abuse allegations. The district placed more than 70 school employees on administrative leave between September and December before Superintendent Chris Maher announced he would personally review all complaints to determine whether employees needed to be placed on leave prior to contacting DCYF.

If she has a misdemeanor on her record, can Violet LeMar keep her job?

LeMar is currently on paid administrative leave from the school district, which means she is still earning an annual salary of $114,447 plus benefits. She is appealing District Court Judge James Caruolo’s decision in Superior Court, where she will take her chances with a jury of her peers. But even if she is convicted, it’s possible she could remain a school department employee. No one would comment specifically on LeMar’s situation, but the district handles misdemeanor convictions “on a case-by-case basis,” according to spokesperson Laura Hart. Employees convicted of felonies are terminated.

Who else has been charged under the failure to report law?

LeMar is one of three individuals who were charged with misdemeanor failure to report in 2017. The first person charged was George Blessing, a school psychologist in Cranston who was accused of not calling DCYF after a student told him she was sexually assaulted by a teacher. Blessing was found not guilty. In November, Colleen Mercurio, a Warwick elementary school principal, was charged after a parent claimed she failed to contact DCYF. Her case is still pending.What’s the status of James Duffy’s case?

Duffy is the physical education teacher in Providence who was charged with six counts of second-degree child molestation and a single count of simple assault. His case is still in the pre-trial phase, with the next court hearing scheduled for Feb. 5.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan (dmcgowan@wpri.com) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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