After criminal charges, could lawsuits be next for Park City schools?
Some experts say the Park City School District could face legal liability beyond existing criminal charges for failing to report child abuse.
For Terri Miller, president of a national group that advocates to prevent student sexual abuse, there’s a simple reason why laws mandate that suspected child abuse be reported.
“The point of reporting it to law enforcement is that law enforcement are the trained child sexual abuse investigators. School personnel are not,” Miller said.
Miller’s group is called SESAME, or Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation. It’s an issue she’s worked on for decades.
“Student victims are cast into a chasm of coping for the rest of their life when they have been betrayed and abused by an entrusted adult in school,” Miller said. “It's a layer of trauma that other child sexual abuse victims don't suffer.”
The issue has come to light locally after the Summit County Attorney last month charged the Park City School District with three misdemeanor counts of failing to report child abuse. Only one case of the three alleges abuse by a district employee.
Utah law requires any person who has reason to believe a child may be a victim of abuse or neglect to immediately report it to the Division of Child and Family Services or law enforcement.
The district’s criminal defense attorney, Mark Moffat, said the district does just that — and has for years.
“The cases that we are dealing with are factually nuanced cases. We are investigating them at present. But, I would submit, don't represent the norm in terms of the cases that are routinely reported by teachers and staff at the Park City School District historically," Moffat said.
The district faces a possible $3,000 fine if convicted. But Miller and University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law Professor Amos Guiora said the district could face costly civil lawsuits if the district's alleged failure to report allowed abuse to continue.
Miller and Guiora said there’s a widespread problem with school districts handling abuse cases in-house rather than referring them to law enforcement. Guiora said the allegations against the Park City School District are not unusual.
“The number of similar cases nationwide is literally stunning,” Guiora said. “… I mean this is awful. It's not — I want to emphasize here: There's nothing stunning here, which is awful in its own right.”
Miller and Guiora said school districts often allow perpetrators to quietly resign rather than face legal consequences for their actions. That can allow the abuser to be hired again as an educator.
Guiora said stopping that practice is one of three main reasons for the mandatory reporting laws.
“One is to protect the child. Two is to criminalize the perp. More importantly than that, to ensure that the perp — the teacher, or whoever — doesn't have the ability to go from school to school, like the Catholic Church has done,” Guiora said.
Miller said there are precedent cases in which school districts have been sued by the families of sexual abuse survivors when the district has not taken steps to make the abuse known.
Moffat said there was no comparison between the large institutional failures that Guiora described and what he’s found in Park City.
“To conflate the things that are going on with the Park City School District with the type of institutional neglect that occurred in those larger institutions would be a huge mistake. Nothing like that is going on in the district,” he said. “There is no top-down mandate within the district to not report child abuse to uphold the reputation of the district or to uphold the reputation of the Board of Education. There's nothing like that and there never has been.”
In 2019, the state Legislature removed legal immunity for school districts unless they adopted a code of conduct specifically forbidding certain activities.
The Park City School District adopted a code of conduct later that year.