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Minn. Court Asked To Clarify Law on Reporting Molesters

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The Minnesota Supreme Court is considering a case stemming from a controversial state law that requires school officials to report any suspected cases of child abuse.

The court heard oral arguments last week in State of Minnesota v. Grover, in which charges were brought against a Cottage Grove elementary-school principal for failing to report to local authorities allegations that a teacher was sexually abusing students.

Curtis Grover, a principal in the South Washington School District, was accused of violating the law during the 1986-87 school year. Charges were brought after several parents complained that he had failed to make the proper notification of an incident of suspected abuse that was later proved groundless, according to his lawyer, Dale G. Swanson.

The principal failed to make the notification because rumors were the only basis for the allegations, Mr. Swanson said. The case was subsequently investigated by the Washington County prosecutor, who determined that there was no foundation for the allegations against the teacher. The case was then dropped.

But Mr. Grover was subsequenty charged by the county prosecutor's office with the misdemeanor offense of failing to report the alleged abuse.

When a lower court dismissed the case against Mr. Grover last April, saying that the reporting statute was unconstitutionally vague, the state attorney general appealed the decision. An appellate court declined to rule on the matter, but the state high court agreed to hear the case.

Mr. Grover was temporarily reassigned to the district's central offices after the initial charges were filed, Mr. Swanson said. He has been reinstated as principal of the Crestview Elementary School, according to a spokesman for the district.

Defense Arguments

Mr. Swanson said that Mr. Grover's defense rests on the argument that "requiring professionals to file reports on a belief threshold as low as suspicion is unconstitutionally vague."

Mr. Swanson said the defense also is based on the constitutional issue of freedom of expression. "We suggest that a reporting statute on its face is about expression--it requires the reporter to express the identity of the alleged abused child as well as the allegedly abusing person," he said.

Such reports constitute a "particularly inflammatory kind of expression and refer to a particularly venal kind of conduct," he added.

The lawyer also contended that the law's provisions that require officials to report any "nonaccidental" physical pain inflicted on a child are overly broad.

Mr. Swanson has lobbied the legislature on behalf of the state's principals, seeking changes in the mandatory-reporting law.

Robert A. Stanich, the special assistant attorney general who is prosecuting the case, said, "Our position is that the 'reason-to-believe' stipulation [in the law] is not vague."

Both Mr. Stanich and Mr. Swanson said that, given the gravity of the questions to be resolved, it could take the high court more than a year to reach a decision.--pw

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