Keeping students safe

HOUGHTON – Total prevention of sexual abuse in schools may be impossible, but local districts do have strong policies for keeping predators away from children and for dealing with allegations that might arise, according to Copper Country Intermediate School District Superintendent Dennis Harbour.

Last week, former Houghton High School hockey volunteer Brad Aldrich was sentenced to nine months in jail for criminal sexual conduct involving a player last year. While the district may not have had a lot of experience in dealing with that sort of situation, district leaders did what was necessary, Harbour said.

“I would say it was handled well, as unfortunate as it is,” Harbour said. “If a situation isn’t dealt with it can escalate, but apparently they did a good job with it.”

Harbour said all districts within the CCISD use policy guidelines purchased from NEOLA, a national organization that has lawyers vet those policies to make sure they comply with state laws.

Local districts may then change or adjust those policies to meet specific needs, but “the policy on something like sex abuse would be similar in most districts,” he said.

Abuse prevention under those policies begins with background checks for both employees and volunteers that will be working with students.

Peggy Myllyoja, the CCISD’s NEOLA policies specialist, said prospective employees have to be fingerprinted, and the fingerprints and names are checked against both national FBI and state databases.

Volunteers, however, aren’t required to be fingerprinted, in which case only their Michigan criminal record is searched, using the Michigan State Police Internet Criminal History Access Tool. Districts can choose to require volunteer fingerprints, and the more extensive search.

“I believe most local districts only do ICHAT; I don’t believe they’re doing fingerprinting,” Myllyoja said.

Doreen Klingbeil, superintendent of Houghton-Portage Township District Schools, said not all volunteer candidates are fingerprinted, but that the district also checks references before bringing someone aboard.

However, she noted, “if someone’s never been convicted everything comes back clean and clear.”

Staff training can also be a means to prevent sexual abuse. Harbour said the CCISD, which provides most local professional development, offered several sessions focused on preventing online sexual abuse a couple of years ago, and that sexual abuse is discussed in mentoring programs for new teachers.

If there is an accusation of abuse, Harbour said districts should quickly contact police rather than try to investigate on their own.

“If there’s any sense it could be remotely true, we should err on the side of caution,” he said.

“We have a great relationship with police and local authorities, and they’re very open to working with us,” Klingbeil noted.

Harbour said the next step would be at least temporarily removing an alleged perpetrator from contact with children, generally by putting them on paid leave if they were an employee.

Even if district leaders think the employee is likely innocent, “it’s very difficult to be effective as a teacher when there are accusations being made of doing something wrong,” he said.

Harbour said he believes NEOLA’s specialists ensure policies at least meet legal requirements and protect districts from liability, but because there have been few incidents of reported sexual abuse, there haven’t been many chances to improve on those policies either.

Klingbeil said the policies on the books were appropriate for dealing with the Aldrich situation, but that the district also “always reviews our policies given any situation that’s happening in the schools.”

Harbour said he thought the Houghton district addressed that situation promptly and with sensitivity.

“The most important thing is the child involved and the legal rights of the child,” he said. “Our mission is to safeguard that.”

A parent of a Houghton High School student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, would not comment on the recently concluded case, but said she’s still comfortable with her child’s safety at school and in Houghton athletic programs.