WEST CHESTER — Chester County District Attorney Deb Ryan has expressed concern over accusations that a teacher at Owen J. Roberts High School who has been charged with sexually assaulting a female student in the school had acted inappropriately in the past, but that reports of his behavior were not handled properly by administrators at the school.
In an e-mail Ryan indicated that if true, a failure to report an instance of sexual abuse by a mandated reporter — such as a teacher, a counselor, of a member of the district administration — could constitute a crime that her office would be responsible for prosecuting.
“This is an ongoing investigation,” Ryan said in an e-mail last week. “As a result of this teacher’s arrest we have received numerous complaints from other students and reports of prior disclosures of possible abuse from students to mandated reporters that may not have been reported.
“I cannot stress enough that our office will prosecute any mandated reporter who has failed to comply with the law,” said Ryan. “We expect and rely on mandated reporters to protect our children. There is no excuse not to report child sexual abuse allegations. All educators are required to take mandated reporter training.”
The allegations of inaction by students came during a Monday on-line meeting of the Owen J. Roberts School Board and follow the arrest earlier this month of high school history teacher Stephen E. Raught, who was the longtime advisor to the student government at the high school, as well as president of the Roberts Education Association teachers union.
The charges by state police came after a 17-year-old female student told police in March that Raught, 53, of Berks County, had taken her to his classroom when she had stopped by the school to pick up a textbook after the district went on shutdown because of the coronavirus outbreak. Inside, he began kissing and fondling her, then engaged in oral sex with her through her clothing as she sat on a countertop.
A preliminary hearing on charges of institutional sexual assault, corruption of minors, unlawful contact with a minor, and endangering the welfare of children before Magisterial District Judge John Hipple of South Coventry is scheduled for June 18.
After news of the arrest spread through the community, 43 former students who had served on the school's student government over the years crafted a May 10 letter to the school board taking the district to task for ignoring earlier warnings and complaints about Raught's behavior and calling for definitive steps to better protect students.
Ryan, who was elected in November as the first female District Attorney in the county, had previously served as the supervisor in that office of the D.A.’s Child Abuse Unit, which prosecutes all cases involving allegations of sexual or physical abuse. After leaving the office in 2017, she worked as the county coordinator for the Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative at the Crime Victims Center of Chester County, where she led educational programs for groups of all types on the issue of child sexual abuse, including the OJR district.
“I personally presented child sexual abuse prevention programming to all of the staff at that school district with the superintendent’s full support,” she said in the e-mail Thursday. “The Crime Victims’ Center also presented child sexual abuse prevention classes to all of (the OJR) second graders through the Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative. It’s evident that more prevention education programming needs to be implemented at our schools for all ages."
In their letter to the school board, the former OJR students said that reaction to Raught’s arrest, "have many of us thinking about whether this could have been prevented. Was a pattern of misbehavior ignored? Should we have spoken up?
"The truth is that students did speak up,” the letter stated. “This teacher’s inappropriate actions were reported and dismissed time and again. In one instance, a student said, “I reported it to admin and was told ‘you took that the wrong way.'"
Alumna Molly Graham, who was permitted to read the letter during the virtual board meeting, said ”Owen J. Roberts graduates going back to 2004 have come forward and described both their experiences of sexual assault within the Owen J. Roberts halls, and how the administration has dismissed them and failed them. “Even though we may never know the full scope of this individual’s inappropriate actions towards students over the years, we already know that this faculty member’s unprofessional behavior was no secret in our community.”
"This is personal for so many people," said East Nantmeal resident Aubrey Stuber, who is one of the 43 authors of the letter. ”I have now personally heard more stories than I would ever want to hear in a lifetime, let alone what we've experienced in a week.”
Another former student alleged that a former teacher who tried to report Raught was instead subjected to questions about her mental stability, and "she was accused of being sexually inappropriate with a minor student, also painting her in a horrific light."
According to Ryan, under the state’s Child Protective Services Law, certain people who come into contact with children in the course of their employment, like educators, are mandated by law to make a report of abuse or neglect to ChildLine if the person “has reasonable cause to suspect” that a child may be a victim.
“The law is clear that the reporter does not need to actually see the child, the abuse, or get the disclosure directly from the child,” she said. “The reporter should not be making credibility determinations, nor should he or she conduct their own investigation.” In Chester County, the county Department of Children, Youth and & Family and law enforcement — most specifically members of the Chester County Detectives Office — are tasked with credibility assessments during their investigations, she said.
“We’ve heard people report that since it was only the word of the alleged victim against someone else they didn’t feel comfortable contacting ChildLine,” Ryan said. “The law mandates that the person call it in if they have reasonable cause to do so. It is important to note that anyone required to make a report can do so anonymously and has immunity from liability.”
She noted that the reporting law was changed in January to increase the penalties for failure to make a report. While originally it was a summary offense, it is now a misdemeanor of the second degree, with a sentence of up to two years imprisonment and a $5,000 fine, and can be a felony of the second degree, with a sentence up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine, depending on the specific type of failure to report.
“Child sexual abuse is an epidemic in our county and across the nation. The statistics are that one out of 10 children will be a victim of sexual abuse before the age of 18 and that 90 percent of the perpetrators are known to the children,” she said.