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Rumors & Mandatory Reporting: Zamora reminds us the reasonableness standard is opaque warranting caution when dealing with any allegation of abuse

By: Gregg R. Woodnick & Ian D. Haney

Originally Published on Linkedin

Brittany Zamora has garnered nationwide attention for her nefarious sexual relationship with her 13-year-old student. Zamora recently pleaded guilty to several sexual abuse charges and is now facing a lengthy prison sentence. However, a lesser known civil suit also surfaced, claiming Zamora’s school district[1] knew about the abuse months before the parents discovered it and did nothing to intervene.[2]  Given a failure to report child abuse constitutes a class 6 felony under Arizona law,[3] we ought to be curious whether the district’s officials could be criminally liable, too.

Arizona’s mandatory reporting statute, A.R.S. § 13-3620, defines who must report child abuse.  Mandatory reporting was thrust into the national spotlight during the Penn State fiasco, which synthesized public outcry demanding a greater swath of the population being required to report abuse or neglect of children.[4] Under A.R.S. § 13-3620, if school personnel “reasonably believes … a minor is or has been the victim of physical injury, abuse, child abuse, a reportable offense or neglect” they must report the abuse to the police or the Department of Child Safety (“DCS”).[5]

Allegedly, Principal Timothy Dickey received written statements from three students in Zamora’s class reporting inappropriate behavior. [6] The School District admits Principal Dickey met with the three students to discuss their statements, and concluded they were unreliable.[7] As such, the Principal counseled the students on the “dangers of rumors.”[8]

In the civil suit, the School District essentially claims the student statements/rumors did not provide Principal Dickey with a reasonable belief that Zamora was abusing a child.[9] As such, Principal Dickey was not required to report these allegations to authorities.  

Nevertheless, Arizona courts have consistently held a “reasonable belief” is a “low standard” because of the strong public interest in “encouraging people to report child abuse.”[10] Specifically, “if there are any facts which one could reasonably conclude that a child had been abused, the person knowing those facts is required to report those facts to the appropriate authorities.”[11] In fact, the reasonableness threshold has been satisfied even when the information leading to the report warranted skepticism and was later proven incorrect.

In L.A.R. v. Ludwig, the Arizona Court of Appeals held it was reasonable for a behavioral health counselor to report child abuse after a single (later proven unreliable) discussion. “The only information [the counselor] relied on in her reports to [DCS] and the police was the information given to her by the mother.”[12] Specifically, the mother informed her son’s behavioral counselor that her 3-year-old daughter had described being molested by the father.[13]  After the report was submitted, the father was indicted and charged with two counts of child molestation.[14] Later, it was discovered the daughter’s playmates had molested her.[15] Even though the charges against father were dismissed, the Court of Appeals maintained the counselor did nothing wrong by lodging the report based on the information provided.[16] In other words, a statement by a toddler made to its mother and relayed to a counselor is reason enough to trigger the obligation to report child abuse.

In this light, while accepting the assertions of the civil suit as true, it certainly seems Principal Dickey had enough reason to believe Zamora was abusing a child. Three students submitted written statements alerting the principal to their belief abuse was occurring. Regardless of the peculiarity of teenagers writing statements and the claptrap pervading most middle school halls, the statements in and of themselves are likely enough to require the allegations be reported to DCS or the police. Mandatory reporting is not a tool for individuals to usurp the function of DCS and the police by internally investigating and determining the validity of alleged child abuse. Instead, it is a protective measure to encourage reporting and discourage silence.  

Still, middle schoolers say ridiculous things, and it is awfully strange to countenance their “rumors” as enough reason to report someone for child abuse. Perhaps Principal Dickey was correct to meet with the students and determine if their statements were honest and genuine. However, given how low Arizona’s reasonable belief threshold is, coupled with the strong interest in encouraging reporting, if there is any doubt as to the legitimacy of facts giving rise to allegation of child abuse, it is better to err on the side of caution and report it.

[1] Liberty Elementary School District

[2] Lily Altavena, Brittany Zamora lawsuit: School admits principal didn’t report rumors to police, parents, Arizona Republic, Jul. 1, 2019, https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/southwest-valley/2019/07/01/brittany-zamora-lawsuit-las-brisas-academy-admits-principal-timothy-dickey-didnt-report-goodyear/1597976001/

[3] A.R.S. § 13-3620 (O) (“A person who violates this section is guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor, except if the failure to report involves a reportable offense, the person is guilty of a class 6 felony.”)

[4] Anna Stolley Perky, Beyond the Penn State Scandal: Child Abuse Reporting Laws, Washington Lawyer, Jun. 2012. https://www.dcbar.org/bar-resources/publications/washington-lawyer/articles/june-2012-child-abuse.cfm

[5] A.R.S. § 13-3620 (A)

[6] Arizona Republic, supra note 2. (Note the statements were received prior to the sexual abuse. However, as the civil suit charges, between the statements and the sexual conduct, Zamora was grooming her victim constituting at the least some form of mental abuse.)

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Ramsey v. Yavapai Family Advocacy Ctr., 225 Ariz. 132, 138, (Ct. App. 2010); L.A.R. v. Ludwig, 170 Ariz. 24, 27, (Ct. App. 1991)

[11] Ludwig, 170 Ariz. at 27.

[12] Id.

[13] Id., at 26.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.



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