No charges to be filed by prosecutor against Highland principals
12:12 a.m. Nov. 16 — By Randa Wagner — UPDATED 3:21 p.m. -
Morrow County Prosecutor Charles Howland has released his decision regarding possible charges against Principals Shawn Winkelfoos, Debra Knechtly and teacher Karen Fowler after an investigation over failure to report an alleged incident involving a student.
In a press release issued at 11;12 a.m. Nov. 19, Howland stated, in part:
“Upon review of the file, the County Prosecutor found that a prima facie (all elements of the offense have been met) case has been made concerning the educators involved. However, the alleged perpetrator of the abuse was not an adult. This fact was a source confusion to the educators. Further discussion of the facts will require disclosure of information concerning a juvenile that state law prohibits. All abuse situations are bad, however in the present situation, the abuse issues have resulted in no physical injuries.
“Due to the confusing nature of the facts of this case, the County Prosecutor will decline charges against Ms. Fowler, Mr. Winkelfoos and Ms. Knechtly. The law presumes innocence until proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is established.”
A press release from the Morrow County Sheriff’s Office Nov. 14 reported an incident of possible sexual misconduct by a student that occurred October 19, and an investigation suggested proper protocol (according to the Ohio Revised Code) for reporting child abuse or neglect was not followed by the school staff.
“As a result, two elementary principals have been placed on administrative leave for not immediately notifying Children’s Services or law enforcement, as the statute mandates,” the press release said.
Highland Superintendent Dr. Bill Dodds confirmed this, adding grades K-2 Principal Knechtly and grades 3–5 Principal Winkelfoos, “have temporarily been relieved of their duties while an investigation is conducted by the Morrow County Sheriff’s Department” at the Nov. 13 Highland School Board meeting. Supt. Dodds also said the investigation does not involve any improper conduct between school employees and students or between adults.”
He reiterated that statement at a special board meeting on Nov. 18, where he and board members stated the alleged incident with the student did not occur on school property. A parent asked why, if the incident did not occur on school property, the principals would be ‘in trouble’ over it.
Supt. Dodds said any time a report of abuse or misconduct — on or off school property — is made to a school official, they have a responsibility to report it to Children’s Services and/or law enforcement. The issue at hand is over whether that report was made in a timely fashion by the principals once they were aware of the situation.
Howland said the investigation was conducted by the Sheriffs Office ‘was complete and thorough’ and the Highland superintendent ‘has assisted and fully cooperated with the investigation.’
Supt. Dodds released a statement to the community Nov. 19 in response to Prosecutor Howland’s determination.
“Upon today’s decision of the prosecutor to decline charges, the Highland Local School District will now complete our own investigation to gather facts pertaining solely to the issue of timely reporting,” Dodds stated. “In the particular report that led to the assignment of our administrators to work from home, the school investigation, prior to handing it over to the Morrow County Sheriff’s Department, found there to have been no incidents that occurred at our elementary school. The risk level was assessed and plans implemented to ensure the continued safety of our students.”
The statement also said when necessary, the school will administer discipline or provide safety plans for individual or groups of students that vary in intensity and are prescriptive to each individual situation. Dodds assured the community through the statement ‘that all reported incidents are addressed with those involved or potentially involved.’
“The Prosecutor’s decision in this matter should not be construed as disapproval of the investigation by the Sheriff’s Office or of Highland Schools,” Howland stated. “Their work in this matter was excellent. However, each case must be decided on its own merit and the confusing nature of the facts that make up this case was the deciding factor. Certainly, the educators now understand that they are required to report regardless of the source of abuse. I have every confidence that in the future they will comply with the letter of the law. Further, the educators may still face discipline from their own board and also possible action by the State School Board.”
Howland added, ‘failure to report abuse situations by the Morrow County education community has been an ongoing problem.’ In effort to resolve this matter, he continued, his office will now forward a letter to each school facility that will outline the obligations of educators to report abuse situations. This letter will include a copy of Ohio Revised Code section 2151.421.
“The Morrow County education community should take notice and be mindful that further violations of the duty to report statute will result in charges,” Howland concluded in his statement. “The County Prosecutor will not accept excuses of “I didn’t know I had to do that” any longer. The protection of children is everyone’s business. Among the education community, the protection of children must be the first priority.”