An bill to put on notice school administrators, teachers and others who are required by law but fail to report sexual abuse is on hold while lawmakers iron out just how long the statute of limitations for those cases should be.
State Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, is the sponsor of Senate Bill 58, which as introduced would eliminate the statute of limitations for those required to report abuse to law enforcement. The bill was before the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee Monday, which took testimony but decided to postpone action until Wednesday while amendments are being worked out.
The impetus for Fields’ bill is more then three dozen allegations of sexual abuse involving five middle school students at Prairie Middle School in Aurora between 2013 and 2017.
The first case involved a 13-year old who reported the abuse to her mother in 2013, but instead of seeing the teacher who assaulted her arrested, she was forced to recant her confession and even give him a hug. She was then suspended for making a false report.
The reason: her mother told school authorities, who didn’t report the abuse to law enforcement as required by state law. It took another case of abuse by the same teacher, in which the parents went to the police first, for teacher Brian Vasquez to be arrested.
Fields and Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler both indicated Monday they fear the current short statute of limitations for reporting the alleged crime to law enforcement could let the school officials who failed to report get away with it.
Vasquez is now facing 37 counts of sexual misconduct involving the five girls, including with four that took place after the 13-year old came forward.
Current state law sets an 18-month statute of limitations for those required by law to report child sexual abuse, including teachers, school counselors and administrators and the clergy.
That’s not long enough, according to Fields, who wanted to see the statute of limitations eliminated entirely.
But that’s too long for the Colorado Catholic Conference and the Colorado Education Association, both which sent statements of opposition to the committee. Neither group testified at Monday’s hearing.
The Catholic Church, which has been embroiled for decades in cases of child sexual abuse, including in Colorado, said in its statement that it has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse. The problem with SB 58 is that “it creates an indefinite statute of limitations regarding mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect. The principle of statutes of limitation acknowledges that as time elapses, evidence goes stale, memories fade, witnesses die or disappear.”
Those who are abused should be encouraged to come forward as quickly as possible and state policy “should reflect this policy as a matter of basic fairness to those involved and not go down a slippery slope that potentially creates unfair and unjust situations,” the statement concluded.
The teachers’ union said it opposed the bill because “it shifts the focus away from bringing perpetrators to justice…instead puts trusted professionals in the impossible situation of knowing how a crime should have been prevented.” The bill will strip professionals of legal protections and create a landslide of criminal and civil litigations “against the very people we count on every day to support Colorado children.”
In the Prairie Middle School incident, the school administrators investigated the claims against Vasquez. “That’s not their role,” Fields told the committee. “If a child says she has been raped, you tell her it’s not her fault and call the police.”
The three administrators – Principal David Gonzales, Assistant Principal Adrienne MacIntosh and former school counselor Cheryl Somers-Wegienka – were indicted last month for failing to report the abuse.
The failure-to-report charge is a class 3 misdemeanor, the lowest-level offense in state law, and carries a penalty of as little as $50 or as much as $750, and up to six months in jail. That prompted committee Chair Sen. Vicki Marble, a Fort Collins Republican, to question whether the penalty for failing to report ought to be heightened to a felony.
Those who are required by law to call the police, known as mandatory reporters, “understand the law” but “sweep complaints under the rug,” Fields said. She claimed the Church and the teachers’ union fear a floodgate of complaints should the statute of limitations be eliminated, so she was wiling to amend the bill to set a five-year limit from the date of discovery of the abuse.
“This isn’t about the CEA or the Catholic Church,” Fields said. “It’s about a process to protect our children.”
The reputation of the so-called Senate “kill committee” toward bills offered by Democrats dissuaded some of the victims in the Prairie Middle School cases from testifying Monday, according to Fields and an attorney who represents several of them, Qusair Mohamedbhai of Denver. That appeared to rankle Marble, who claimed her committee gives bills fair hearings.
Brauchler, who supports the bill, gave some of the strongest comments to the committee. “If you vote no, you’re voting for the status quo,” he said. “If you vote yes, you’re voting for the protection of kids.” He called the 18-month current limit “paltry and inadequate.”
“We tell our kids, when this happens, tell someone.” And when they do, some adults don’t listen, Fields said.
The bill will be back in front of the State Affairs Committee Wednesday.