Court Criticized Child-Abuse Policy City School Board Received Warning in 1991

Article excerpt

In 1991, the federal appeals court here warned the St. Louis School Board that its child-abuse reporting policy and training requirements left board members vulnerable to damage suits.

More than four years later, the district is still using the child-abuse policy that the appeals court found lacking. The School Board took the first step toward adopting a new policy three weeks ago.

The delay raises questions whether a new, stronger policy might have produced a quicker response in a recent sex crime involving a preschooler at the Wilkinson School, 7212 Arsenal Street.

In that case, Ruffner G. Bright, a child molester with a criminal record stretching back five decades, is being held in lieu of $750,000 bond. He was charged with sodomy Friday after a Post-Dispatch article triggered a police investigation into his relationship with a 5-year-old child who goes to Wilkinson.

For 2 1/2 years, Bright, 69, had been acting as a surrogate parent for the child, whose parents are immigrants from Vietnam and speak little English. In November, he accompanied the child's class on a field trip and represented the child's family at an hour-long conference with teachers and the school principal.

Superintendent David J. Mahan took responsibility for the four-year delay in changing the child-abuse policy.

"It was my understanding that those changes had been made in 91-92," he said Tuesday. "I was wrong."

But Mahan said that speedier action on the district's child-abuse policy would have had no effect on the Bright case.

"We've had a policy on child abuse and neglect since 1990, and whenever they suspect something, principals report it," he said.

Mahan said that steps taken by Thomas Stenger, former principal at the Wilkinson School, last spring to report Bright's involvement with the child complied with the current policy and the proposed policy.

After being given a stack of old Post-Dispatch articles about Bright's past, Stenger made a report to the child-abuse hot line in June. State child-abuse investigators and city police interviewed the child's family about his relationship with Bright but found no reason to take further action.

"Tom Stenger did what he was supposed to do," Mahan said. "I'm not trying to place blame, but DFS (the Division of Family Services) reported back to him that they did not see any reason to take any action. There were no indication coming from parents or anyone else that there was any inappropriate action occurring at that particular time. The whole issue was Bright's past behavior."

In 1984, Bright had been barred from another city school, the Garfield School, after a reporter uncovered his criminal record. He had served as president of the school's PTO and been given a desk in the school lunch room. Since then, he has had other convictions for sex crimes against children. Each of his run-ins with the law received prominent media attention.

The district's child-abuse rule fills half of one single-spaced page. The proposed policy, set for a vote Tuesday, occupies 2 1/2 single-spaced pages. It would incorporate the old rule, plus definitions of abuse and neglect and new procedures for reporting abuse or neglect by a school employee. It also would require the associate superintendent to forward a summary of all complaints to the superintendent and the board every quarter.

Mahan said he found out in August that the child-abuse policy change that had been proposed in 1991 had never been adopted. Notification came in a letter from the school district's attorney, Kenneth C. Brostron. Brostron urged adoption of the child-abuse rule, and another on peer sexual harassment, at the board's meeting in September. The proposed rules finally found a place on the agenda Jan. 9, where they were given a first reading. …