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Four educators plead no contest for failure to report suspected child abuse

BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. - Four educators at Three Oaks Elementary School have pleaded no contest to one count of failure to report suspected child abuse, according to Berrien County Prosecutor Mike Sepic.

Sherrie Bender, teacher, pleaded no contest on September 7 and was assessed fines and costs in the amount of $795.

Matt Cook, a guidance counselor, pleaded no contest on September 11 and was assessed fines and costs in the amount of $895.

Diane Balling, special education teacher, pleaded no contest on November 9 and was assessed fines and costs in the amount of $735.

Heidi Clark, principal, pleaded no contest on November 14 and was assessed fines and costs in the amount of $685.

A second count of failure to report suspected child abuse against each teacher was dismissed.

All four will remain on probation through the end of the school year, in 2018.

Each must serve 100 hours of community service.

River Valley School District Superintendent Will Kearney said in a statement on Thursday that the four educators are still working at the school.

He said the district is now conducting its own investigation, since the court case is over.

In an op-ed published Thursday, Sepic said if each completes their term of probation successfully, the charge will be dismissed and removed from their criminal record.

Sepic said one of the reasons he prosecuted this case was to raise awareness for the obligations of mandated reporters -- such as educators -- who are required by law to immediately report suspected child abuse or neglect. He said in the op-ed, "the number of calls to DHHS [Department of Health and Human Services ] has increased locally and training on these issues has increased in our local schools."

Christine Paitkowski, president of the Michigan Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, said this case is a reminder that there's no harm in calling the state's hotline if you suspect abuse or neglect, even if you don't have concrete evidence.

"If the hotline folks feel that there is a need for an investigation to occur, they will send someone out to complete an investigation," she said. "If they feel that the allegations don't rise to the point of an investigation, then they'll close the case and there's no harm done."

Paitkowski added: "If it turns out to be nothing, then it's nothing. But you might be able to save a child or help protect them from abuse." 

Sepic stated in Thursday's op-ed that the evidence in the case included emails among the defendants discussing the child's weight and well-being.

Statements included, "He appears to be hungry throughout the day and appears to be 15 – 20 pound lighter than last year," and " He never stays home…even if he’s not feeling good…because he’s too afraid of his step-mom."

Kearney said in Thursday's statement that this is a "very unusual case, as our staff did report their concerns in December 2015, and were told by the state the following February, that there was no basis for their report."

He added: "While we need to look at the processes between teachers reporting incidents and CPS following up; we also need to make sure that we continue to be accountable for reporting as required."

Sepic said that the educators should have again reported their concerns to the state, even after the first investigation, because the emails used as evidence in court showed the signs of abuse continued after the state had looked into the case.


On August 11, 2016, a 12-year-old boy who had been reported missing the day before was found near railroad tracks in Galien Township.

Police took custody of the boy and placed him with the Department of Health and Human Services.

A physician examined the boy and reported he weighed 47-pounds, was bruised, dehydrated and exceptionally skinny. The boy also had a cut lip and old cigarette burns, according to the prosecutor's office.

The 12-year-old told police his mother and father didn't allow him to eat. He told police he ran away because he “was tired being treated like a dog and he didn’t think he would reach his 13th birthday.”

The boy's father, Aaron Zemke, and stepmother, Alicia Zemke, were charged in the case. Both pleaded no contest to child abuse first degree. They each received a sentence of 20 to 80 years in prison, Sepic stated.

Click here for more information on the child protection law.

And click here for more information on how to detect child abuse or neglect, as mapped out by the Michigan Professional Society on the Abuse of Children.

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

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