Was a Theatre Teacher Fired for Reporting Alleged Sexual Misconduct?

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Last month, it was reported that a theatre teacher in Florida was arrested because he failed to report accusations of sexual misconduct to school officials or law enforcement. James Brendlinger, a theatre teacher at Lake Howell High School in Orange County, FL, was notified by a 16-year-old student that she had been involved in a sexual relationship with an adult volunteer with the school's theatre department. For almost a month,  Brendlinger did not say anything to school officials or report it to law enforcement. Finally, when the student reported it herself to school officials, Brendlinger admitted he sat on the information and was promptly charged by law enforcement. 

While there is a great distance between Orange County, FL and Reading, PA, this case might be relevant to what's going on at Reading High School where it's been alleged that a longtime high school theatre director has been fired not because she failed to report accusations of sexual misconduct, but because she did report them. 

For 50 years, Jeannette DeAngelo has been involved with the theatre at Reading High School. But in January, she was notified that she, along with her entire theatre staff, were being let go. The previous November, the Reading School Board had voted, 9-0, in favor of firing DeAngelo and her staff. Worse yet, DeAngelo wasn't told the reason for her termination. But, according to her, it could be because she notified school officials of alleged sexual misconduct that a former student reported to her involving a colleague at the school. 

 Jeanette DeAngelo and a student during their 2014 production of "Shrek" (Photo: Natalie Kolb)

Jeanette DeAngelo and a student during their 2014 production of "Shrek" (Photo: Natalie Kolb)

According to the Reading Eagle, DeAngelo claims her dismissal came shortly after she notified district officials that a district teacher involved in the high school's spring musical "had solicited and conducted an inappropriate relationship" with a former student.

DeAngelo was contacted Nov. 10 by an alumna who "alleged she had been part of a relationship with a teacher for some time when she was 15 or 16 years old," DeAngelo's attorney, Joel Ready, said.

Two weeks after reporting the incident to the school district, the school board removed DeAngelo and her staff from the school show.

Citing confidentiality reasons, the school board has refused to comment on the situation. 

But, according to DeAngelo, she made sure to do all the right steps in order to make sure this information was handled the right way. She reportedly told the school's principal, Eric Turman, and asked him where she should report it. DeAngelo states that after Truman told her he notified the superintendent, that she should report the allegations to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services ChildLine.

However, according to district policy, "school employees, independent contractors or volunteers who suspect child abuse shall immediately make a written report of suspected child abuse."

It appears Truman did not do this and the school district has not commented as to why that hasn't happened. 

According to another report in the Reading Eagle, "DeAngelo was contacted by the district administration Jan. 12 and told the district was "going in a different direction" with the school show and her services were no longer needed, according to the suit. She was also told that it was "best for everyone" if she would "go away quietly" into retirement,"

Now she's suing the district. DeAngelo is suing for a minimum of $3,650, which is what she would have received for directing the school show, reinstatement and attorney's fees and costs.

 Reading High School

Reading High School

In response to the lawsuit, the school district put out a statement which included that "the District remains focused on the safety and well-being of our current and former students."

If DeAngelo's claims are true, then I have a hard time believing that the district truly cares about the well-being of their students if they're firing teachers and staff that report sexual misconduct. 

If it's true that the Reading School Board did fire DeAngelo because she reported allegations of sexual misconduct that were reported to her by a former student, I find that to be an egregious error and one that could have terrible repercussions that could cause students to not report abuse out of fear. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, at most, only 35% of all sexual assaults are ever reported to law enforcement. If the Reading School District is punishing whistleblowers, it's easy to understand why that percentage is so low. 

It also should be noted that, just as it is in FL, willful failure to report (having a reasonable suspicion of abuse and deciding not to report it) may be punished. The first offense of willful failure to report is a second-degree misdemeanor. Penalties are increased to a third-degree felony if the mandated reporter willfully fails to report child abuse that is a felony of the first degree or higher and the mandated reporter has direct knowledge of the nature of the abuse. 

So it could be said that DeAngelo was following the law for reporting reports of abuse and, allegedly, lost her job because of it. 

We'll follow this story, but in the meantime, I would encourage any student or former student at Reading High School or any school, to continue to report sexual abuse. Whether it's to school officials, law enforcement, or organizations such as RAINN's National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline (800.656.HOPE). One of the biggest reasons why these abuses continue is because accusations are ignored or those who report them are punished and intimidated. According to some, that's exactly what's happening in the Reading, PA. 

If anyone has any information about this story, please feel free to contact us at onstageblog@gmail.com or Jeremy Long at the Reading Eagle at 610-371-5032 or jlong@readingeagle.com.