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The importance of reporting suspicions of abuse

BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. -- After four Berrien County educators were convicted of failing to report suspected abuse of a student, Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic explained Friday why he’s hoping the case will draw a line in the sand.

“The concern for this boy was so pervasive,” Sepic said. “And yet, the reporting was lacking.”

Four employees of Three Oaks Elementary School are now on probation and doing community service for not acting fast enough.

Sepic is hoping this case serves as a reminder that people working in education, medicine, social work and more are ‘mandated reporters’ –  required by law to immediately report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect, even if there’s no concrete evidence.

“Over the years I’ve experienced that sometimes it feels like they tend to feel like they want to be the one filtering this information that they’re seeing every day, and deciding, themselves, whether something should be reported,” Sepic said.

But he said that’s not how the law works.

He wrote an op-ed in the Herald Palladium on Thursday to “emphasize the importance of the mandated reporting requirement.”

Sepic said a teacher’s intuition is crucial because they’re spending more time with their students than really anyone else.

“They’re like a parent!” he said. “They know when something is wrong with the children that they’re teaching. And so, again, that is the first line of defense. And oftentimes that is the source of abuse referrals.”

The educators at Three Oaks Elementary started having suspicions about a student in late spring 2015.

But Sepic said the first report wasn’t made until months later in December.

The state came and investigated, but didn’t find enough evidence at the time.

Sepic said emails between the employees after that point showed there were still concerns, but they went unreported.

“Their initial concerns should’ve gone to the next step,” Sepic said. “Their continued concerns should’ve gone to the next step. This prosecution, honestly, was meant not to interfere with their employment – I don’t know if it will or not – but it was to draw that line in the sand.”

The River Valley School District superintendent said in a statement Thursday that all four educators are still working at the school.

He also said the district is now completing its own investigation.

Click here to learn more about Michigan’s Child Protection Law.

If you suspect abuse against a child or an elder, please call the hotline at 855-444-3911. You can remain anonymous.

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