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Divided court upholds principal’s conviction of failure to report child abuse

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A split Indiana Supreme Court Thursday upheld a misdemeanor failure to report child abuse conviction against former Muncie Central High School principal Christopher Smith. The dissent believed the state failed to show he had reason to believe an alleged rape was child abuse.

 A fellow student brought 16-year-old G.G. to the assistant principal’s office, where G.G. told Kathy McCord she had been raped by student S.M. in a bathroom at the school. McCord went to Smith and told him of the allegation. At the time, G.G. had been found a child in need of services and was a ward of the Madison County office of the Indiana Department of Child Services. She resided, by court order, at the Youth Opportunity Center in Muncie.

Smith and other school leaders decided to investigate the claim before alerting police or the Department of Child Services because G.G. had allegedly previously faked a seizure and they did not want to ruin S.M.’s reputation. The school immediately called the YOC to get consent for medical treatment; Smith believed by calling YOC, DCS would be notified. Smith called DCS approximately four hours after learning about the incident and told the agency he wasn’t sure if he was reporting abuse.

Smith was charged with failure to immediately report child abuse or neglect. A divided Court of Appeals upheld his conviction.

At the heart of Smith’s appeal is whether he knew the alleged rape constituted child abuse, which would require him to immediately contact DCS or law enforcement. Justices Steven David, Mark Massa and Loretta Rush affirmed, holding if Smith’s mistaken interpretation of the law were a defense to his criminal liability, it would remove all incentives from professionals to understand the scope of the statutory duty.

“It would tacitly encourage administrators and other professionals to simply not read the statutes in full because, to sum up Smith’s defense: if you just don’t learn what child abuse is, you’ll never get in trouble for not reporting it. It would reward systemic ignorance in entire school districts and corporations, to the obvious detriment of the very children the statutes are supposed to be protecting. And it would turn the high school principal’s decision-making process, when faced with a traumatized child, into a Bar exam question,” David wrote in Christopher Smith v. State of Indiana, 18S02-1304-CR-297.

Justice Robert Rucker dissented, to which Chief Justice Brent Dickson joined, regarding this point. Rucker noted the charged offense requires reference to no fewer than five separate statutory provisions contained in two different titles and four different articles of Indiana Code. Rucker said the critical inquiry is whether Smith knew or should have known that rape of a minor student by another minor student constituted “child abuse.” The evidence is clear, Rucker wrote, that Smith did not.

The four-hour delay in reporting the incident was not considered “immediately” as the statute requires. The term “immediately” is not unconstitutionally vague as applied to his reporting duty under I.C. 31-33-5-1, David wrote. In addition, Smith’s phone call to the YOC was not a report pursuant to the statute.  
 

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