Cedar Hill principal arrested for failing to report abuse
This story has been updated from the version which ran online with additional context and information.
The Warwick Police Department announced Wednesday morning the arrest of Cedar Hill Elementary School Principal Dr. Colleen Mercurio on Friday, Nov. 10 on a warrant charge for failing to report an incident of child abuse to the proper authorities. She will appear in the 3rd Division District Court in Warwick on Monday, Dec. 11.
The specific charge, Failure to Report Child Abuse, is a misdemeanor and stems from a violation of Title 40, Chapter 11, Section 3 of the Rhode Island General Laws, which states that:
“Any person who has reasonable cause to know or suspect that any child has been abused or neglected...or has been a victim of sexual abuse by another child, shall, within twenty-four  hours, transfer that information to the Department of Children, Youth and Families, or its agent, who shall cause the report to be investigated immediately.”
Violation of this statute carries with it the possibility of up to a $500 fine and a possible sentence of up to one year in prison.
On Wednesday night, after the Beacon's deadline, Mercurio's attorneys Jeffrey D. Sowa and Tom Gulick issued the following statement on her behalf:
"Dr. Mercurio is in her thirteenth (13th) year as an administrator in the Warwick School District. Her outstanding performance in that capacity was recently rewarded by the district in the form of a new three (3) year contract. Dr. Mercurio has consistently and faithfully followed all district protocols regarding student safety during her tenure and has always contacted DCYF when the law requires. Please remember that due process takes place in the courts and not through social media. Dr. Mercurio looks forward to addressing this misdemeanor charge and clearing her name in court."
Although Warwick Police could not comment on the details of the incident that led to the arrest - due to the individuals involved being elementary-age children - Major Rick Rathbun confirmed that it was the result of an investigation in conjunction with the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) following a complaint levied by a parent in November of 2016.
With this timeline in mind, and based on previous reports made by the Beacon regarding a group of parents who started a petition to have Mercurio removed from her position as principal due to a list of complaints and incidents of perceived mismanagement, the incident that led to the arrest involved two girls who were allegedly sexually assaulted by another student while on their school bus over the period of two years.
Although Mercurio was reportedly made aware of these incidents twice by the victims’ parents, she allegedly did not initiate an investigation either time. According to the parent petition, Mercurio tried to convince the parents not to seek an investigation into the matter, despite having a legal obligation herself to immediately report the incident to DCYF to investigate any report pertaining to possible sexual assault or abuse.
Mercurio’s obligation to report any instance of possible sexual assault involving a student, either at the hands of a school employee, parent or fellow student, is plainly defined both by the Federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE).
According to OCR’s Title IX, which provides guidance for how schools are to handle sexual assault and abuse in schools: “A responsible employee would include any employee who has the authority to take action to redress the harassment, who has the duty to report to appropriate school officials sexual harassment or any other misconduct by students or employees, or an individual who a student could reasonably believe has this authority or responsibility.”
According to RIDE’s 2011 “A Guide to Identifying and Reporting Child Abuse in the Schools” report: “The duty to report rests with any person who has reasonable cause to know or suspect that any child has been abused or neglected. In a school setting, this means teachers, aides, principals, custodians, school bus drivers, substitute teachers, secretaries, etc.”
Prior to the arrest, Mercurio had been on paid administrative leave since Oct. 16. Former Cedar Hill principal Stephen Kirby - who retired in 2009 - has assumed the role of interim principal. Warwick school administration would not comment further on the subject since it was a personnel matter.
According to sources close to other incidents involving Mercurio, one parent was working with a lawyer preparing a lawsuit against the school department. The status of that suit following the arrest could not be immediately determined.
Corey Smith, spokesman for the original group of parents who petitioned to remove Mercurio - which gathered over 200 signatures online - issued a statement following news of the arrest:
“Given the political support provided to Dr. Mercurio by Mayor [Scott] Avedisian and others within Warwick public office, I am pleased that the Warwick Police Department did not shy away from what must have been an exhaustive investigation...
It is my hope that the action taken today opens the eyes of all of us as parents and citizens to not simply accept what public officials tell us, but to question them when necessary and to get involved where possible. The culture within our school system needs to change - it needs to become more collaborative, where teachers and parents have a real voice, and where a small group of people do not have absolute power. I hope we all remember this next Election Day and demand more of those who willingly choose to represent us by running for public office.”