Deal reached to dismiss charges in DeGrazia failure to report child abuse case - The Explorer: Import

Deal reached to dismiss charges in DeGrazia failure to report child abuse case

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Posted: Tuesday, April 5, 2005 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:50 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

April 6, 2005 - A Pima County Superior Court judge has granted approval of a diversion agreement that will drop felony charges against DeGrazia Elementary School Principal Julia Barwell and kindergarten teacher Connie Jensen.

Judge Nanette Warner signed the last of the paperwork April 4, stating that, if both women complete 50 hours of community service and 25 hours of training on Arizona's child abuse reporting law, charges that they failed to immediately report a 5-year-old student's claims of sexual abuse will be dismissed with prejudice, a court spokesperson said.

Barwell's attorney, Barry Mitchell of Phoenix, said the parties had reached an agreement and filed the paperwork last week and he expects Barwell to complete the requirements of the agreement this spring.

The agreement comes just several days after Marana Unified School District's governing board unanimously voted at its March 29 meeting to remove Barwell from her position and begin searching for her replacement. Barwell is expected to be reassigned to another position in the district after she completes her obligations to the court, district officials said.

"She's a dedicated professional and whatever tasks she's assigned to, she's going to bring that same professionalism to that task," Mitchell said of his client.

Kindergarten teacher Dorlis Menendez and counselor Jennifer De la Montano resumed work at DeGrazia recently after similar charges against them were dropped. Jensen and Barwell cannot return until they have completed their obligations to the courts, district officials said.

The board's 5-0 vote to remove Barwell came after an hour and 20 minutes of tear-filled testimony from DeGrazia staff, parents and students, who pleaded for board members to reconsider the decision, but board members were unwavering.

Nearly 30 supporters lined up inside Tortolita Middle School to speak of Barwell's devotion to the DeGrazia community before an unusually large audience of almost 100 people.

The DeGrazia community was just beginning to take shape under the leadership of Barwell, said Faith Matthews, a DeGrazia parent.

Matthews expressed disdain that parents weren't informed the board would be making such a decision, and criticized the district for failing to hear the community's voice first.

"Your voting is to be representative of our needs," Matthews said, adding that removing Barwell from the DeGrazia community will only break the trust between parents and district administration.

Board President Bill Kuhn urged speakers to be brief as testimony came to a close. He then called the meeting to a recess before returning to tell the audience that the district had little choice but to remove Barwell.

Kuhn said Barwell was trained twice on the mandatory reporting procedures before she violated those laws. While any employee is facing felony criminal charges, the district has no choice but to relieve that employee of his or her duties, he said.

"The law is very clear," Kuhn told the audience. "I don't understand why people don't get it."

Kuhn said the decision to reassign Barwell was made because DeGrazia needs a principal in place to begin planning for next year, and it's uncertain how long it will take Barwell to complete her obligations to the court. District officials explained that they weren't willing to wait out Barwell's case, and wanted to open the position up to candidates as soon as possible.

But that explanation didn't sit well with audience members who called out, "We already have a principal," and "We're willing to wait."

Some DeGrazia parents said they were upset that district officials failed to consider their input even when they tried to reach out.

Kathy McGee said she wrote a letter to interim Superintendent Jane Pryne in December but never received a response.

"I never received (notice that) there was going to be a meeting," she said. "We had to make the effort."

Estes Principal Rocco Sugameli, who considers Barwell a close friend, read a letter that Barwell prepared because she could not be in attendance.

Barwell's letter stated that she was thankful for her time at DeGrazia and understood the board's decision. The letter also stated she's learned a lot from the situation and hopes everyone can move on.

"Sadly, one very unfortunate event has overshadowed our many accomplishments … and changed several lives," her letter read.

"I was touched by the support she received by the people that were at the board meeting," Sugameli said during an interview the next day. "The outpouring of support I heard last night was incredible."

Bob Dennis, a fourth grade teacher at DeGrazia, said that when Barwell came onboard in 2003 he immediately noticed a hardworking, caring person who set high goals.

Barwell vowed to learn the names of all 600-plus students at DeGrazia, which she accomplished by taking their names and faces and making flash cards, Dennis said.

Several who spoke in favor of Barwell admitted there is a rift in the DeGrazia community that needs to be mended, but said that division isn't a result of Barwell's management of the school.

Teachers said the decision to reassign Barwell doesn't have the support of DeGrazia staff, but the district wouldn't know that from its recent open-ended, anonymous survey used to make its decision, said Britte Stumm, a second-grade teacher at DeGrazia.

"Our staff was never formally asked how we felt about Julia's return," Stumm said. "I believe it would be a true injustice to the students and staff of DeGrazia's campus if Julia Barwell is not allowed to return."

Parents described Barwell as an administrator who stood outside in the mornings and made sure children were on time to school, helped out in extenuating personal situations, and was never too busy to listen to someone's concerns, sign a yearbook, or hear a joke from a student. And they'd often see her car still in the school parking lot if they passed by late at night, one parent said.

Melissa Delaney, a single mother of a DeGrazia student, said her son had been labeled a "problem child" before going to DeGrazia but Barwell's one-on-one care helped her son mature.

Marsha Eubanks, another parent, said her daughter was diagnosed with cancer and Barwell showed exceptional compassion and support.

"It was everyday: How are you? How's your daughter?" she said, adding that since Barwell left she's not being asked that question.

Cari Ogle, a sixth-grade student at DeGrazia, who is a dwarf and had to undergo surgery in Maryland last year, said Barwell took the initiative to make sure she didn't fall behind in school.

"She sent all my homework to me," she said as she burst into tears. "She is just a great principal."

Kim Ogle, Cari's mother and a teacher at DeGrazia for 18 years, said Barwell e-mailed her on a daily basis to check on Cari's condition and, when she went back to school, Cari made the honor roll.

Shannon Davidson, a DeGrazia parent, shed tears as she described Barwell as "heaven sent."

"I really feel that way," she said. "I feel Marana was lucky to have her."

Former students even shared in the testimony. One eighth grader at Tortolita Middle School said that for six years she walked the halls of DeGrazia and rarely saw her principal, but that was just prior to Barwell's arrival, and "What everyone tells me now is, 'You left one year too soon.'"

Rose Andreatta, a parent of two DeGrazia students, said that regardless of if a mistake was made, "the important thing to remember is that a child has been saved."

According to Pima County sheriff's reports, the abused girl told Jensen Sept. 7 or 8 her father had sexually abused her over the past several years, but Jensen did not know who to call to report the abuse.

Over the next two days, the information made its way through De la Montano and Menendez before Barwell learned of the allegation Sept. 9. The incident was not reported until Sept. 10 when Barwell ran into DeGrazia's DARE officer.

According to sheriff's reports, the girl may have been abused as recently as Sept. 9.

On Sept. 10, Barwell asked the officer if the student's claim was something that should have been reported. The officer informed Barwell that Arizona law requires the claim should have been reported immediately.

According to the officer's report, Barwell did not immediately report the child's allegation because she'd heard of situations where deputies investigating a claim will ask children if they want to have their father arrested.

Forty-five-year-old Timothy W. Stephen, the girl's father, was sentenced in December to six years in prison and a lifetime of probation after pleading guilty to three counts of sexual conduct with a minor.

Board Vice President Patricia Teager made the official motion to bring Barwell's removal to a vote, backed by Kuhn and board members Maribel Lopez, Albert Siqueiros, and Dan Post.

"Julia recommended some of you. That's a shame," one audience member called out as the large crowd cleared the room, but not before yelling, "You remember you're elected."

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