Ariz. Principal Convicted Of Failing To Report Suspected Abuse

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A Phoenix elementary school principal has pleaded guilty to criminal charges of failing to notify authorities of evidence that a student was being sexually abused by a staff member at her school.

Joanne L. Talazus, the principal of Longview Elementary School, was convicted last month under a state law that requires educators and school officials to report suspected abuse. Under a plea agreement, she will lose her teacher's license and could serve up to six months in prison.

The educator involved in the case, Ronald Ruelas, 32, a counselor at the school, was convicted last month of numerous felony charges relating to abusing and molesting students, and was sentenced July 1 to 175 years in prison.

Though most states have laws that require educators to report suspected abuse, convictions under such laws are rare, experts say. "This isn't something that happens frequently," said Robert Shoop, a professor of education law at Kansas State University, who studies such cases.

Usually, the perpetrator of the abuse is the only one who is prosecuted, he said.

Often, prosecutors decide not to charge principals or other school officials because the circumstances of abuse cases are murky, he added.

"If someone comes in and says someone is harming a child, then any reasonable person would say that raises suspicions," Mr. Shoop said. "But if there is some oblique rumor, it may not cross that threshold."

Individuals who fail to report such crimes more often are the targets of civil cases in which parents seek damages for the emotional harm to their children, Mr. Shoop added.

No 'Legal Ability'

In the Arizona case, prosecutors charged that Ms. Talazus had failed to inform police or child-welfare authorities of complaints from parents of two male students in 1994 that a counselor at the school had sexually abused the boys.

Arizona law mandates that educational staff members report any "immoral or unprofessional conduct" within 72 hours of becoming aware of the activity.

"In general, educators who are in charge of the care and control of young people do not have the legal ability to decide when there is legal duty to report to child protective services," said Bill Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the Maricopa County prosecutor's office, which handled the case against Ms. Talazus and the counselor.

Marc Budoff, Ms. Talazus' lawyer, said last week that the principal didn't consider the charges against the school's counselor credible. However, Mr. Budoff said, his client now acknowledges that the information should have been reported to authorities. "My client's error was trying to evaluate the complaint herself," he said.

A sentencing hearing for Ms. Talazus is scheduled for July 26.

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Page 6

Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as Ariz. Principal Convicted Of Failing To Report Suspected Abuse
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