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  • Cedar Hill Principal Charged with Failure to Report Child Abuse

    Colleen Mercurio

    WARWICK, RI — Warwick Police on Nov. 15 announced the arrest of Cedar Hill Principal Colleen Mercurio, 55, on one count of failure to report child abuse following an investigation into complaints made by parents to the Warwick School Committee.

    Maj. Rick Rathbun of the WPD confirmed in an email that the charge “stems from her failing to report an incident to DCYF in November 2016 that fell within her mandatory reporting obligation / requirement.”

    Under Rhode Island law 40-11, anyone who suspects that a child has been a victim of sexual abuse by another child is required to report the incident to the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families within 24 hours.

    Earlier this year, Cedar Hill parent Kelly Smith started a Change.org petition calling for Mercurio’s removal after a parent reported that their eight-year-old had been abused on a bus.

    “It has become evident to us that Dr. Mercurio is either incapable or unwilling to address the profoundly disturbing acts of student misconduct that numerous families have brought to her attention during her tenure as principal,” stated the petition.

    According to the parent, Mercurio at first dismissed the complaint saying the bus was not “the school’s responsibility” and later admitted that she had not contacted the bus company or reported the incident to her superiors.

    The parent later filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, which took up the case “immediately.”

    On Wednesday afternoon, Superintendent Phil Thornton said Mercurio has been on administrative leave since Oct. 16. He declined to comment on the matter further, saying the issue was a personnel matter.

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    In late July, Thornton said  he and his staff were looking into the parents’ complaints, and that he expected to finish with that investigation, “In the coming weeks.” He declined to offer any information regarding that investigation.

    Wednesday night, School Committee member Karen Bachus said members of the Committee have not yet been briefed on the results of Thornton’s investigation.

    Bachus said the event underlines the responsibility that everyone, not solely educators, bear in reporting suspected child abuse.

    “People need to know that everyone in the State of Rhode Island is a mandated reporter,” Bachus said. She said that means anyone with knowledge of child abuse is legally obligated to report it to the DCYF Child Abuse Hotline (24/7) at 1-800-RI CHILD (1-800-742-4453).

    Corey Smith addressed the Warwick School Committee Aug. 15, protesting the district’s failure to update parents on an investigation of their complaints that Cedar Hill School Principal Colleen Mecurio mishandled abuse reports.

    Mercurio is next scheduled to appear in court on Dec. 11. If convicted on the misdemeanor charge, she could be sentenced to up a year in prison, up to a $500 fine, and ordered to pay civil damages.

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    • As an attorney that represents parents of students with disabilities against school districts, this story is particularly troubling. Children often do not have the ability to speak for themselves. We send our children to school and expect them to be nurtured and protected — not treated as some inconvenience to the staff.

      Of course administrators like this might give lip-service to caring about children in her care, quite clearly she had other concerns and priorities that caused children to be put at risk of serious injury. A year in jail? Not enough, in my opinion.

      And let’s be honest. This principal cannot be the only adult at that district that knew of these events. What if the bus driver or monitor? What if the teaching staff? What other administrator did the principal inform? What of the Board of Ed? I’ll bet a broom needs to be taken to this district, as something like this likely means a leadership culture that fosters it.

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