SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office has completed its review as to whether the Redlands school district violated the state’s mandated reporter law when they did not initially inform law enforcement of an unsubstantiated rumor they received concerning a possible sexual relationship that a teacher had with a student.
On July 1, 2013, a 17-year-old Citrus High School student’s mother reported to school officials that her son told her he had a sexual relationship with a teacher, Ms. Whitehurst, and that the teacher recently gave birth to his child. School officials immediately reported the matter to the Redlands Police Department and to the Department of Children and Family Services (CFS, formerly known as CPS), in compliance with the mandatory reporting law. The question presented in this case is whether there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that, prior to July 1, 2013, any school official violated the mandatory reporting law. The Redlands Police Department conducted a thorough investigation of this question.
The police investigation shows that prior to July 1, 2013, there were only unsubstantiated rumors and speculation regarding the student and Ms. Whitehurst. No factual information about a sexual relationship had been reported to any teachers or school officials. No one reported observing anything sexual or having any knowledge of anything sexual between Ms. Whitehurst and the student.
On May 16, 2013, a teacher reported to school administrators that during school hours she saw the student leaving Ms. Whitehurst’s classroom crying. Nothing sexual was observed. Upon receiving this information, school officials separately interviewed both the student and Ms. Whitehurst the next day. Each denied any sexual relationship existed. Each gave what appeared to be reasonable explanations for any allegedly suspicious conduct. For example, it was rumored the student spent a lot of time in Ms. Whitehurst’s classroom. This was explained as being normal because Ms. Whitehurst was the advisor for a student leadership group in which the student was a team leader, and that this was common practice among students in the leadership group.
After interviewing the student and Ms. Whitehurst, school officials contacted their school attorney. The school attorney advised that there currently appeared to be no evidence of any sexual misconduct by Ms. Whitehurst that would require further action by school officials.
Mandatory reporters are required to report only when they have “reasonable suspicion” that sexual misconduct occurred. Mandatory reporters are not required to report unsubstantiated rumors or speculation. According to the mandatory reporting statute, PC 11166(a)
“‘[R]easonable suspicion’ means that it is objectively reasonable for a person to entertain a suspicion, based upon facts that could cause a reasonable person in a like position, drawing, when appropriate, on his or her training and experience, to suspect child abuse or neglect.”
A 1987 California Attorney General Opinion explained that a mandatory reporter is not required to report all suspicions, only those that rise to the level of “reasonable suspicion.” The law allows a mandated reporter to investigate or make further inquiries to determine whether a suspicion is “reasonable.”
“Nevertheless the child abuse reporting law contemplates that the persons required to report child abuse will obtain sufficient information of the circumstances to determine whether any suspicion they might have of child abuse is reasonable.” (70 Ops. Cal. Atty. Gen. 38, at page 41).
In this case, on July 1, 2013, immediately after receiving information from the student’s mother about the student’s statements, school officials fully complied with the mandatory reporting law.
Prior to July 1, 2013, all that existed were unsubstantiated rumors and speculation. No factual information about a sexual relationship had been reported to any teacher or school official. No one reported observing any sexual misconduct by Ms. Whitehurst or the student. The teacher’s report of May 16, 2013, also contained no allegations of sexual misconduct.
However, upon receiving the May 16 report, school officials appropriately conducted an investigation to determine if there was any substance to the rumors. At the conclusion of the investigation, there appeared to be no substance to the rumors. Any suspicion that still existed did not rise to the level of “reasonable suspicion.” (The subsequent police investigation revealed that both Ms. Whitehurst and the student had concocted and carefully planned their cover stories and explanations to eliminate suspicion by the authorities.)
There is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any school official violated the mandatory reporting laws.