Verona’s mayor and police chief have alleged the Verona Area School District was wrong not to contact police after it learned of a sexual assault case involving a substitute teacher at Badger Ridge Middle School last week.
During a Common Council meeting March 9, and three days later in a more detailed email to the Press, Diaz accused the district of putting public safety at risk by choosing to contact only Child Protective Services on March 6. School administrators made contact with CPS about 40 minutes after school officials removed the teacher, Dustin Schallert, from the classroom near the end of the school day, when a student complained about his behavior.
That student’s father contacted police three hours later. Verona police chief Bernie Coughlin told the Press on March 13 that the call happened only after the victim and father waited at home because administrators had told them they would call police. Coughlin said not calling police immediately could have a negative impact on the investigation.
District superintendent Dean Gorrell told the Press on Friday BRMS administration followed protocol.
“That report was made within an hour,” he said. “In contacting CPS, what they do is they triage those calls and make the determination as to if, and when, to engage local law enforcement.”
Gorrell said contacting either CPS or local law enforcement, but not requiring both, is a policy held by other school districts in Dane County. He said officials often contact police, but whether they should do so depends on the situation.
“It’s a case-by-case basis,” he said. “It isn’t a, ‘We will always do just this,’ or ‘We will always do just that.’”
Coughlin disagreed, pointing to the district’s own recommended best practices document, published Sept. 13 of last year. He said sexual assault should involve calls to police.
Communication between VASD and police was heavily emphasized in the contract the district and city signed in November to ensure a police presence at the high school. The agreement states administrators and officials are encouraged to involve police as the situation warrants.
Diaz’s statement to the Press alleged not contacting the police and delaying notification to the school’s parents until three days later was done to avoid negative publicity.
“This decision certainly runs counter to the charge of any institution that is responsible for the safety of children on a daily basis,” Diaz wrote.
Gorrell disagreed with Diaz’s allegation that the district decided not to inform police to avoid negative publicity toward the school district.
“This was going to get publicity, one way or another,” he said. “That wasn’t a consideration at all.”
Schallert, 30, was charged Thursday, March 12, with first-degree sexual assault and sexual assault of a child under 16, both felonies, and misdemeanor disorderly conduct. According to a criminal complaint filed March 12, Schallert allegedly touched the left buttock of a student with an open palm on the first day and slid his hand underneath the shirt of another student in the classroom on the second day.
School administrators wrote in the March 9 letter to parents they had pulled Schallert out of class immediately on March 6 and escorted him off the premises within 15 minutes. Schallert had substituted in classes at the school before that week, the letter said, but there had been no previous reports of inappropriate behavior.
Schallert was arrested Saturday, March 7. And after the March 9 letter, Coughlin said, other parents came forward with stories of incidents prior to March 5.
One of Diaz’s main complaints was that while the district met its reporting requirement, the three-hour delay in informing Verona police could have compromised the evidence collection process of a criminal case.
“Instead of immediate contact with the authorities, the victim, suspect and witnesses were sent home by the school personnel without those personnel notifying the police,” Diaz wrote. “ What the victim, witnesses, and suspect did during those three hours might affect the evidence that can be gathered.”
Coughlin told the Press the police department tries to limit its interviews in such cases so children are not victimized again by having to recall the details more than once.
Gorrell said having administrators interview students and get initial statements from them without police presence is a standard district procedure.
Coughlin said the police department does these investigations for the victims because they have been wronged.
“There’s no plausible reason why the VPD was not immediately notified upon the principal and associate principal learning what had just happened,” Coughlin said.
A question of policy
The letter to parents, from principal Alan Buss, states the district’s human resources department asked CPS whether it should notify police and the CPS intake worker said the agency would make that determination.
Gorrell told the Press staff followed the district’s procedure by contacting CPS. State law mandates that staff report child abuse to the county or law enforcement, but it does not require both.
However, Page 2 of a district document posted in September 2019, “Recommended Best Practices and Procedures for Calling the Police,” clearly states that sexual assaults are one of the situations requiring police intervention.
“There are other situations that require police involvement,” it states, with sexual assault as the first of a dozen listed issues, most of which are felonies.
Gorrell said the district’s human resources chose to contact CPS because students were involved – based on the agency’s experience in dealing with investigations regarding children – and so administrators could focus on talking with the students.
Diaz’s statement to the Press said the district needs to change its reporting policies to work more closely with police departments to protect students.
“The continued refusal of the district to work with the police department will only foster an environment where unfortunate incidents like this could continue to happen,” Diaz wrote.
Gorrell said there have been no formal discussions between the police department and the district regarding what situations need to be brought to law enforcement, that they have instead been mainly focused on school resource officer contracts. Coughlin disagreed, saying the district and city have had numerous formal meetings on the topic, and he offered to provide meeting dates, personnel involved and draft minutes as evidence.
Gorrell said the district and police department would both benefit by arranging a working relationship with Safe Harbor, which helps coordinate agencies in investigations that overlap jurisdictions.
Coughlin said the department has been working with Safe Harbor throughout this investigation and has been employing those services for more than 20 years.