If allegations made by parents petitioning for the removal of Dr. Colleen Mercurio as principal of Cedar Hill Elementary are found to be true, then Mercurio would be in violation of federal and state laws and could potentially face misdemeanor charges for failing to immediately report incidents of student-on-student sexual assault to the Department of Children Youth & Families (DCYF).
An investigation by the School Department into Mercurio’s alleged mishandling of several incidents at Cedar Hill involving student-on-student misconduct continues, which was initiated by administrators after Superintendent Philip Thornton and the Warwick School Committee heard testimony stemming from a petition signed by over 70 parents of current and former students at the school during their July 11 meeting.
Thornton confirmed last week that there was a complaint filed against Mercurio with the federal Office for Civil Rights, and that they had opened their own investigation as a result. Corey Smith, spokesman for the petitioning parents, said that two additional, separate complaints were also sent to OCR, but that those had not been prompted additional investigations at this time. The details of the OCR and school-sanctioned investigations are kept confidential until a conclusion is reached.
“Investigations at the federal level are substantial and should cause significant concern to the Warwick School Committee,” said Smith. “The fact that three separate parent groups have gone to the OCR suggests that the political culture that exists within [Warwick Public Schools] is permissive and that proper leadership is lacking.”
Allegations that could result in misdemeanor charges, if found to be true, include an incident where a student with special needs was inappropriately touched and bullied into performing “inappropriate actions” while on the school bus during a field trip. Smith claimed that the parents brought the issue to Mercurio and she, “attempted to blame the special needs student while minimizing what the other students had done,” and ultimately did not report the incident to DCYF.
The other incident involved multiple acts of sexual assault that occurred on a school bus over a two-year period between two students.
Smith claimed that Mercurio was made aware of the assaults by the victim’s parents in November of 2016, but it took until the following February, after multiple meetings with the parents and school administrators, that the perpetrating student was removed from the bus – a decision that Smith said was ultimately overturned by the school committee.
It was also revealed through these meetings that the perpetrating student was reportedly implicated in another, earlier incident of sexual misconduct with a separate student that was witnessed by a classmate on the playground.
This allegation alone, if true, could be a violation of federal law, specifically Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. According to the Office for Civil Rights’ 2014 “Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence” report:
“If school officials receive a credible report that a student has perpetrated several acts of sexual violence against different students, that pattern of conduct should trigger an inquiry as to whether other students have been subjected to sexual violence by that student. A school’s failure to take prompt and effective corrective action in such cases...would violate Title IX even if the student did not use the school’s grievance procedures or otherwise inform the school of the sexual violence.”
Although a violation of Title IX would not directly result in any criminal punitive measures – such decisions would be up to local law enforcement – the allegation continues to claim that, in a subsequent meeting between Mercurio and the parents of the repeatedly victimized child, Mercurio allegedly directly encouraged the parents to not seek an investigation into the incidents.
If this provision of the allegation is found to be true, this action would directly violate both Title IX and the Rhode Island General Laws, the latter of which would carry the possibility of an up to $500 fine and up to a year of imprisonment.
According to Title 40, Chapter 11, Section 3 of the Rhode Island General Laws: “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 (24) hours, transfer that information to the Department of Children, Youth and Families, or its agent, who shall cause the report to be investigated immediately.”
Mercurio’s responsibility to report any instance of sexual assault involving a student, either at the hands of a school employee, parent or fellow student, is plainly defined both by The Office for Civil Rights and the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE).
According to OCR’s “2001 Guidance”: “…a responsible employee includes any employee: who has the authority to take action to redress sexual violence; who has been given the duty of reporting incidents of sexual violence or any other misconduct by students to the Title IX coordinator or other appropriate school designee; or whom a student could reasonably believe has this authority or duty.”
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.”
The other alleged incidents referenced in the original petition include an act of sexually explicit cyber bullying, a racially-charged verbal argument between two students and an incident where Mercurio was made aware of a student who had a tick removed on school grounds and then failed to report the removal to the child’s parents. The child later reportedly contracted Lyme disease.
“Many of the parents listed on this petition have gone to her in good faith to inform her about disturbing instances of student misconduct, all of which she has mishandled, minimized or outright ignored,” Smith said in front of the school committee during public comments on July 11. The petition has since moved online and has risen to 171 signatures at press time.
Smith expressed his frustration last Saturday at multiple school officials who expressed to news outlets that there is “more to the story” than is being told, challenging anybody who has more information that would shed additional light onto the issue to make that information available.
Smith also expressed his frustration with Mayor Scott Avedisian, who stated shortly after the petition was made public that he had “full confidence” in Mercurio and that he felt she “runs a good school and does a good job” and was “one of the innovative and creative principals in our system.”
“I find it troubling for him to make such a bold and absolute statement…” Smith said. “In addition, how could the Mayor have such absolute confidence when 70 parents feel differently – shouldn't that at least cause the Mayor to pause and consider whether there is merit to this petition?”
Avedisian doubled down on his support for Mercurio on Monday.
“The spokesperson for the petition drive has not sent me any information that would warrant me to alter my support for Dr. Mercurio,” Avedisian said in an email. “Having worked with her for the past 17 years, I think I have an ability to judge her actions impartially, to look at the innovations she has done over the years, and the way that she has responded to numerous issues in the schools that she has served.”
Mercurio did not respond to requests for comment. Dr. Mercurio is not under criminal investigation nor is she currently implicated in any criminal activity. Any parties involved in allegations described in this article are presumed innocent until proven, through legitimate investigative means, otherwise. Those investigations remain ongoing.
(Contains reports from John Howell)