School administrator Judith DeWalt joked with a friend and her attorney Monday as she arrived for a hearing before the Arizona Board of Education. When she left an hour later, she was in tears.
In a stunning 6-1 vote, the board censured DeWalt for "unprofessional conduct" in failing to report complaints of sexual abuse lodged against one of her teachers. The teacher, Wade Hutchins, was sentenced last week to a 308-year prison term for fondling boys at Cactus View Elementary School.
The Board of Education stopped short of suspending DeWalt, the former principal of Cactus View and the soon-to-be director of curriculum for the Paradise Valley Unified School District.
But the vote to issue a letter of reprimand against DeWalt gives an unexpected boost to the nine civil lawsuits filed in Maricopa County Superior Court against the district and some individuals, including DeWalt ("Once More With Feeling," June 20).
In voting to reprimand DeWalt, the board took the unusual step of rejecting the recommendation of an advisory panel. That panel--the Professional Practices Advisory Committee--voted unanimously on May 24 not to recommend sanctions against DeWalt.
The case against the veteran principal was filed by a Cactus View parent, David Cool, whose son was not one of Hutchins' victims. Ironically, Cool was not present at Monday's hearing. If he had been, he would have heard board members concur with many of his viewpoints.
"The litany of incidents that had gone on [with Hutchins] cannot be normal," Lisa Graham Keegan, state superintendent of public instruction, told her fellow board members. "What I am struggling with is that I think we have good people and good intent here, [but] I think we have to see it from the parent's and child's viewpoint. I keep asking myself 'What if this had happened at a charter school?' They probably would be closed down. . . . There were actions that should have been taken that were not taken."
DeWalt responded by blaming the parents of the victims and the crime-response policy the district had used until the Hutchins case came to light.
"You couldn't pin anything down," she said of the allegations. "At this point in time, our policies and procedures are much better. My hands were tied in that the parents told me never to tell [Hutchins] who had called [with complaints]. . . . There was nothing mentioned about him touching private parts."
But board member William Byron Darden noted, "As a parent, you have to hold the principal to the highest standard of 20/20 hindsight. The buck stops there. If this was to have happened to [my child], I'd be in your face in a heartbeat."
The board members' comments echoed those spoken by Superior Court Judge Susan Bolton on June 19, moments before she sentenced Hutchins essentially to a life prison term.
"What I found difficult about this case," Bolton told a rapt courtroom, "was that I had been under the impression that for the past 20 years there had been significant education in the community, in the schools, in places where children go for recreation, and in the police departments to alert those people that are in the position of caring for children or investigating complaints about crimes against children that trusted adults commit.
"And what I was disturbed to find was that people still don't understand that trusted adults commit these crimes against children, and they give the adult the benefit of the doubt and not the child, and do not take seriously the signs that were clearly there early on that there was something wrong."
Bolton wasn't engaging in speculation or guesswork. She had presided at Hutchins' trial, and, along with jurors, had heard compelling evidence that DeWalt had failed to heed blatant warning signs concerning Hutchins. Evidence showed that DeWalt's failure to follow state law--educators are required to immediately report suspected abuse to police or the state's Child Protective Services--allowed Hutchins to molest more than two dozen Cactus View boys for more than two years.
Rather than obeying that law, DeWalt followed a district policy which called for school officials to conduct their own investigation before reporting a suspected crime to law enforcement. In fact, it was parents, not school officials, who finally contacted police.
DeWalt wasn't the only one who failed to follow up on reports of abuse. Phoenix police officers Gerald Funk and Eddie Rodriguez also inexplicably dropped the ball when they were told of Hutchins' predilection for fondling young boys.
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The police department addressed the officers' lapses internally, by transferring them to new assignments.
But neither DeWalt nor assistant superintendent of personnel Tom Krebs--who also was deeply involved in the Hutchins case--has been disciplined by the Paradise Valley district.
"What was disturbing to me in this case was that this case could have occurred several years ago," Judge Bolton concluded. "It could have occurred when there were two or three victims. It could have occurred before substantial trauma was inflicted on so many people. . . . And many people--the victims and Mr. Hutchins--will have to suffer much more severe consequences than they would have had to suffer had someone seriously intervened back when the first disclosures were being made by the boys."
The state board's letter of reprimand will say DeWalt should have had reason to believe that crimes were being committed and should have contacted law enforcement. It will become part of her personnel file at the state Department of Education and at the school district.