Cedar Hill Principal Colleen Mercurio, alongside her attorney Thomas Gulick, delivered a plea on Monday morning of “not guilty” during her arraignment at Kent County District Court in relation to her recent arrest by Warwick Police for allegedly failing to report an incident of student-on-student sexual assault to the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).
A pretrial hearing will now be held on Monday, Jan. 22. Mercurio has waived the right to a trial by jury, according to the Rhode Island public courts portal online. The pretrial conference will be presided over by District Court Associate Judge Brian Goldman.
Mercurio did not make any public comments following the arraignment, which was presided over by District Court Magistrate Joseph P. Ippolito Jr., and left quickly after the plea. However Gulick said to the press after the arraignment that Mercurio has always followed the law in her 15-year educational career, always reported all necessary incidents to DCYF and that she was looking forward to being exonerated from the charges against her.
Mercurio was arrested on Nov. 10 following an extensive investigation from Warwick Police, which was prompted by a complaint levied by parents in November of 2016 who alleged that Mercurio had failed to report a situation involving their child and another student which involved reoccurring incidents of sexually-natured assault.
The parents alleged that Mercurio was made aware of the incidents twice, and that she did not initiate an investigation either time – even going so far as to suggest the parents should not seek an investigation into the matter. Educators, including principals, have a legal obligation to report any incident possibly involving sexual assault to DCYF so that a proper investigation can be conducted.
Violation of the Rhode Island statute regarding reporting of sexual abuse in schools – Title 40, Chapter 11, Section 3 of the Rhode Island General Laws – carries with it the possibility of up to a $500 fine and a possible sentence of up to one year in prison.
Mercurio was placed on paid administrative leave from her duties as principal of Cedar Hill on Oct. 16. Stephen Kirby – former Cedar Hill principal who retired in 2009 – remains as her replacement for the time being. She remains on paid leave.
The arrest came after a summer of controversy involving Mercurio, where more than 70 parents of current and former students at Cedar Hill signed a petition, which was delivered to the Warwick School Committee in July, that alleged she mishandled or ignored six specific acts of misconduct involving young students – three of which that were sexual in nature. The petition has grown to include over 200 names in its online version.
One of those incidents was the incident which led to the investigation and subsequent arrest by Warwick Police. That incident, as well as two others, have also been submitted as complaints to the Federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and are reportedly under investigation as well.
All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by an appropriate court of law.