WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – A Providence elementary school principal has been found guilty of failing to contact the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families after students complained to her about a gym teacher touching them inappropriately last May.
Violet LeMar, who has been on paid administrative leave from Harry Kizirian Elementary School for the entire school year, was convicted Monday of the single misdemeanor charge following a four-day bench trial before District Court Judge James J. Caruolo.
“I found her testimony and her actions in this case to be false and deceptive,” Caruolo, a former prosecutor who later served as town solicitor in North Providence, said prior to delivering his verdict. He sentenced LeMar to one year suspended sentence, one year of probation and 150 hours of community serve at a center for victims of assault and abuse.
LeMar’s attorney, Thomas Gulick, invoked his client’s right to immediately appeal to Superior Court.
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Caruolo said LeMar’s testimony was largely “designed to make her the victim” rather than focusing on the students’ accusations. He concluded part of her statement on the witness stand was “somewhat misleading” because she never gave her superiors “pertinent information” about the students’ claims. He called LeMar’s testimony “indignant and at times, condescending toward the prosecutor.”
LeMar was charged last August with breaking the state’s failure to report law after multiple students informed her that their physical education teacher touched them inappropriately last May. The teacher, James Duffy, has pleaded not guilty to six counts of second-degree child molestation and a single count of simple assault.
Caruolo took the weekend to consider his decision after a trial that saw 11 witnesses – including Providence Superintendent Christopher Maher – take the stand. Two of the witnesses were young girls, who were fifth graders when they say they approached LeMar with allegations that Duffy had touched them.
The judge said he was disturbed that LeMar took notes about the students’ claims, but has never provided any of the notes to DCYF or the police.
During the trial, LeMar testified that she didn’t believe the students’ initial claims were “sexual or abusive in nature,” but also acknowledged she was unaware of changes made to the DCYF reporting law that state lawmakers approved in 2016. Caruolo said the argument the LeMar didn’t know the law was “without merit” because educators have been mandatory reporters for many years. The only change in the 2016 law that LeMar is charged under, he said, was now educators can held criminally responsible for failing to contact DCYF.
After two students approached her about Duffy on May 9, LeMar testified that she contacted her direct supervisor and the city’s human resources department about the allegations. She also said she attempted to reach the students’ parents, although she admitted she had to leave a voicemail for one of them. She also informed Duffy that he was being placed on paid leave on the same day.
But LeMar has acknowledged she didn’t contact DCYF within 24 hours of the initial reports from two students and didn’t file a critical incident report with the school department until July 5. The failure to file an incident report is not a crime – it’s a violation of district policy – but Maher testified that the appropriate authorities would have been notified if the report was submitted.
In his closing argument on Friday, Gulick said his client “acted in good faith” and didn’t believe the students’ initial accusations were about Duffy were “sexual in nature.” Had she known what came out in a report the school department submitted to the police, he said, she would have contacted the police or DCYF. He said the state did not meet its burden of proof, noting that LeMar’s decision to belatedly file a critical incident report is not what’s on trial.
Gulick listed at least nine school employees – plus the police – who did not contact DCYF when they became aware of the students’ accusations. He said no one was covering up a crime. Instead, he argued, no one called the state because the first reports were not related to sexual abuse.
“She deserves the benefit of the doubt,” Gulick said.
Ania Zielinski, a special assistant attorney general who is prosecuting the case, said there was no question the Providence school department “dropped the ball” during its investigation, but urged the judge to shift the “magnifying lens” back to LeMar.
Zielinski said LeMar was charged because “she’s the only one” students immediately approached with the accusations against Duffy. She argued the students trusted LeMar and LeMar let them down. She accused LeMar of “passing the buck.”
“She’s not a bad person, no one said she is,” Zielinski said. “But she made a criminal mistake.”
Caruolo said he found the testimony of both of the children in the trial to be credible. He said LeMar’s testimony had a “lack of credibility,” arguing that she failed to provide critical information about the students’ accusations to her superiors.