November 20, 2014

Medina
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Teen’s suicide raises questions about law, school policies

Note: This is the main story story in a larger piece, focusing on the effectiveness of laws and school policies surrounding the reporting of teens who may be suicidal.
• For resources on who can help if you or someone you know is considering suicide, click here.
• To read about the father of Deven Baab, whose suicide prompted these stories, click here.
• To read about the prevalence of teen suicide in Medina County, click here.


Loren Genson and David Knox

Four days before 14-year-old Deven Baab’s suicide, the mother of one of his classmates called a counselor at Claggett Middle School and warned the boy was talking about killing himself.

Kimberly Mahoney said the counselor reassured her.

Richard Baab, 48, holds a picture of his son, Deven, whose suicide in November has raised questions about laws and school policies about reporting teens who may be suicidal. (GAZETTE PHOTO BE DAVID KNOX)

“This has been an ongoing thing. We’re working on it,” she remembered the counselor saying.

Mahoney reported the boy also claimed his father was beating him. The counselor said she was aware of that, too.

“We’ve heard from several parents and other people about what Deven says,” she said the counselor told her.

Mahoney pressed.

“What are you going to do about it?” she asked. “I want to know when I hang up you’re going to do something about this.”

Mahoney told The Gazette she assumed the counselor would alert child welfare authorities or at least call the boy’s father.

She was wrong on both counts.

The counselor, Julia Schwendeman, and other staff members had been in contact with the father since mid-October about reports Deven was showing other students self-inflicted cuts on his wrist and, later, scratches on his chest.

But on the day Mahoney called — Nov. 16 — neither she nor any other school officials called the father.

Nor had any school official reported the boy might have been abused by his father.

That fact triggered a five-month investigation by Medina Township and Medina city police.

The story of the investigation, which ended with prosecutors declining to bring charges, raises questions about the effectiveness of Ohio laws and school district policies aimed at protecting children:

• Although Ohio requires school officials and dozens of other types of professionals to report suspected child abuse and neglect, there is no similar statute requiring anyone to report if a child is suicidal.

• Teachers are well aware of their duty to report suspected abuse or neglect. The state law widely is publicized. But the law rarely is prosecuted. Some legal scholars say the language of the statute is flawed, making enforcement difficult.

• The Medina school board’s bylaws and policies include step-by-step procedures staff members should follow if confronted with a suicidal student. However, there are no specific guidelines explaining how to handle third-party reports, such as Mahoney’s, from outside the school.

• School officials made no formal inquiry to evaluate the staff’s response to Mahoney’s warning to determine whether the board’s policies and procedures could be improved. Nor is there anything in the school district’s files that indicates there was a police investigation.

While Schwendeman declined to comment for this story, school administrators voiced their support.

“The police did an investigation and the prosecutor did an investigation and no charges were filed,” Kris Quallich, the district’s director of student services, said. “If you’re asking me if we think she should have done something different, I think our answer is no.”

Investigation begins

It’s doubtful there would have been an investigation if the boy’s father, Richard Baab, had not told police about a “disturbing voicemail” he found on his son’s cell phone two weeks after his son’s death.

The message, left 10 days before the suicide, clearly indicated Deven Baab had been talking about killing himself weeks before his death.

It was from Mahoney’s son. Following up on that lead is how Medina Township police Officer Michael Oyler learned of Mahoney’s encounter with the counselor.

Oyler, who was the primary investigator because the Baabs lived in the township, already had contacted Schwendeman and Claggett Assistant Principal Shannon Thibodeau while retrieving the contents of Deven Baab’s locker.

But Oyler learned about the allegations of abuse from Mahoney.

Mahoney told Oyler that the night before she called the school her son had shown her text messages from the boy stating he was going to kill himself.
She said she called the boy’s cell phone and they talked for about 20 minutes.

“Deven told her he was being abused at home and that’s why he was saying that he wanted to kill himself,” Oyler wrote in his report, which The Gazette obtained.

At one point in the interview, Mahoney “started crying and explained that she wanted to take some type of action herself but Julia (Schwendeman) told her several times that the ‘professionals’ were ‘working on it,’ ” Oyler wrote in the report.

Mahoney said she asked Schwendeman if anyone had reported the abuse. She said Schwendeman told her the “proper authorities were contacted,” the report said.

That wasn’t true.

Oyler, a 17-year veteran police officer and a member of the Medina County Domestic and Sexual Violence Taskforce, checked both with Medina police and Medina County Job and Family Services.

“Neither had any record or reports of abuse involving Deven or his father,” he reported.

No evidence of abuse

Oyler launched his own investigation and soon concluded Richard Baab hadn’t been beating his son.

After interviewing several of the boy’s friends and family members, including the boy’s mother, he wrote in his report “no one that I spoke with ever witnessed any signs of physical abuse.”

Oyler discovered the boy had said other things that weren’t true. He had told some friends his mother lived in Florida. His parents were divorced, but his mother lived in Mansfield and often saw him.

The boy told others the reason he wanted to kill himself was because his mother had died in a car crash “and the doctor told him if he had gotten her to the hospital just a few minutes sooner, they could have saved her,” Oyler reported.

The boy told a different group of friends the reason he wanted to die “was because his girlfriend was killed on his birthday,” Oyler wrote.

Oyler also found evidence Richard Baab was a concerned father.

Immediately after an Oct. 31 meeting with Schwendeman and a teacher at Claggett about Deven displaying to other students self-inflicted cuts on his wrist, Baab took his son to Akron Children’s Hospital. Deven was discharged two hours later with a diagnosis of “cutting without plans of suicide,” Oyler reported.

The next day, when Schwendeman followed up with another call, Baab told her he was considering putting his son in a “partial hospitalization plan” and was investigating outpatient counseling.

Baab said he stressed to Schwendeman that he wanted to be called “for any matters concerning Deven,” saying “if one more thing happens, he’s taking him back to the hospital and he’s staying,” Oyler reported.

Oyler noted Baab was “very surprised and upset” when told about Mahoney’s call to Schwendeman. Baab said he kept his son home that day because Deven had a stomachache. He reported the absence using the school’s automated phone system.

“On the very same day Deven was absent from school, another parent called the school because they were obviously concerned for Deven’s safety and well-being,” Baab said, according to Oyler’s report. “Yet no one from the school called me or the police?”

At that point, Baab “broke down in tears,” Oyler wrote.

Law doesn’t cover suicide threats

While Baab is convinced his son’s death could have been prevented if someone called him that Friday, that wasn’t the focus of the police investigation. It couldn’t be. There is no Ohio law requiring anyone to report a child might be considering suicide.

Ohio isn’t unusual.

“Virginia is the only state with a statute that explicitly requires reporting of suspected suicide risk by all licensed administrative or instructional school personnel,” said Wylie G. Tene, spokesman for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “No federal law addresses this issue.”

There was an Ohio law that might have been broken — the statute requiring teachers and other professionals to report suspected child abuse and neglect.

On Dec. 28, Oyler entered into his notes that his supervisor, Sgt. Todd A. Zieja, had met with Medina County Prosecutor Dean Holman and got the OK to investigate the failure to report the possible abuse.

Records show the investigation went nowhere for nearly two months — bogged down in wrangling between the township and city over who had jurisdiction in the case and whether it was proper to investigate school employees for not reporting abuse that never occurred.

Medina Township police contended the investigation required the cooperation of the Medina Police Department because Claggett Middle School is within the city limits.

But when Oyler forwarded his report to Medina police on Jan. 3, his request for a joint investigation was turned down.

“They will only investigate this if they received a letter from Prosecutor Dean Holman indicating they need to,” Zieja wrote in his notes.

But the county prosecutor’s office also was backing away.

Two weeks after Oyler submitted his initial report on Jan. 23, Zieja received a letter from county Assistant Prosecutor Michael McNamara saying his office wouldn’t handle the case because failing to report suspected child abuse was a misdemeanor.

Failing to report suspected abuse is a fourth-degree misdemeanor punishable by no more than 30 days in jail and a $250 fine. The charge rises to a first-degree misdemeanor if the abuse occurred.

McNamara suggested taking the case to the Medina city prosecutor.

Jurisdiction dispute

Zieja took McNamara’s advice and briefed Richard Barbera, one of the city’s three part-time prosecutors. A copy of Oyler’s report was sent to him on March 4.
The next day, Oyler received a letter — this time from another city prosecutor, Kevin W. Dunn.

Dunn not only declined to take the case, saying there was insufficient evidence to file charges, he questioned whether the case could be successfully prosecuted under the state statute.

Zieja and Oyler made a March 12 appointment with Dunn to plead their case in person.

“We explained that the matter needs to be investigated further to find out whether the alleged abuse was reported or not,” Oyler wrote in his report.

Dunn was unmoved and suggested Richard Baab “seek a civil remedy,” by filing a lawsuit, according to Oyler’s report. But the city’s third prosecutor, J. Matthew Lanier, agreed to speak with his boss, city Law Director Gregory A. Huber.

Two days later, Oyler got a call from Medina Police Chief Patrick Berarducci. Following a meeting the following day, the chief agreed to participate in the investigation and assigned Detective Amy Kerr to the case.

Kerr moved quickly, notifying Oyler that same day that an interview with Schwendeman was scheduled for March 18.

Conflicting accounts

In separate reports about the nearly hour-long interview, Oyler and Kerr wrote that Schwendeman acknowledged not reporting the alleged abuse.

She gave several reasons why.

She said she had “prior knowledge” that child welfare authorities already had been alerted.

Schwendeman said, “The allegations of abuse ‘really heightened’ in the summer of 2012 and to her knowledge that was when MCJ&FS (Medina County Jobs and Family Services) was involved, came out and Dad had to go through an investigation,” Kerr wrote in her report.

She also said that during their Oct. 31 meeting at the school about Deven cutting himself, Baab “was the one who brought up the abuse issue” and had told her he “had to deal with it.”

As for Mahoney’s phone call, Schwendeman said she didn’t report it because officials at Medina County Job and Family Services had told her “in the past they would want the information to come from the actual source” and not a third party, Kerr wrote in her report. “She encouraged Mrs. Mahoney to call (MCJ&FS).”

Schwendeman also assumed the doctors at Akron Children’s Hospital who examined Deven would have reported “if there were any signs of physical abuse,” Oyler noted in his report.

Oyler and Kerr reported finding conflicts with some of Schwendeman’s statements.

Oyler re-interviewed Baab, who denied telling Schwendeman child-care authorities had contacted him about his son’s claims of abuse.

“At no time did I discuss anything pertaining to Children Services with her,” Baab said, according to Oyler’s report.

Oyler concluded that Schwendeman’s claim of “prior knowledge” that child welfare authorities had been involved “was based on hearsay from other middle school students and/or their parents.”

Kerr interviewed an intake social worker at Medina County Job and Family Services and was told that the agency expects teachers and other professionals, as required by law, “to call in concerns of abuse or neglect, even with third party information.”

Another staff member at the agency told Kerr that Schwendeman was “one of their ‘regular callers,’ ” adding, “She seemed very concerned for her students.”

Case closed

Kerr also confirmed there was no record of a report by Schwendeman or anyone else concerning the Baab family in the county or the state Job and Family Services computer systems.

A check of the city police computer found Schwendeman involved in several reports, including a 2012 report of parents abusing drugs and a March 7 report of physical abuse of a child by a parent.

But again, “There was nothing found for Richard or Deven Baab,” Kerr noted.

On April 8, Oyler and Kerr filed their final reports with the city prosecutor.

Prosecutor Lanier responded in a letter, dated April 24.

In declining to bring charges, Lanier did not contest the facts presented in the officers’ report. He also agreed that Ohio’s child abuse statute did apply to Schwendeman, as well as a secretary who also heard Mahoney’s statements.

“However, we do not believe ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that either had reasonable cause to suspect” that Deven Baab “was being abused or neglected necessitating further reporting,” Lanier wrote. “As such, our office has declined to pursue a criminal charge against either person at this time.”

Oyler and Zieja said they were not authorized to comment on the case.

Is law flawed?

Several legal scholars contacted by The Gazette said Lanier probably made the right call — although they disagreed on the reasons why.

Carmen Naso, an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve’s School of Law, said the language of the Ohio law makes it extremely difficult to prosecute.

While the statute is very specific about who must report suspected abuse and neglect — in the four decades since the law was passed in 1969, the list of professionals covered has grown to nearly 30 — Naso said it is vague about when they must report.

“Just look at the statute,” he said. “The claim that the child makes or the circumstances that the teacher or coach sees must lead a reasonable person to have reasonable suspicion under a reasonable interpretation of the circumstances that this kid is a victim of abuse.

“Any statute that contains the word ‘reasonable’ in three different contexts in one sentence … leaves me scratching my head as to how people are supposed to understand what their responsibilities are under the law.

“I fault the Legislature for that.”

Naso has practiced law for 30 years, including seven as supervisor for the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Justice Unit.

“We like it when the Legislature tells us in black and white what we can prosecute and what we can’t,” he said. “It would be great if they could clarify this statute and not make it so dependent upon facts that are subject to interpretation.”

Statistics unavailable

How often prosecutors have attempted to use the law is unclear.

The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, which oversees county child protective services that investigate reports of abuse and neglect, doesn’t keep count.

“We do not track the number of mandated reporters prosecuted for failing to report,” Benjamin Johnson, deputy director of the department’s Office of Communications, said.

Checks with other state agencies also came up empty.

The Ohio Supreme Court keeps statistics on the number of cases handled by the state’s courts but not what crimes are charged.

The Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services does tabulate crimes from police and sheriff’s departments across the state for the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program — but only for eight categories: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, vehicle theft and arson.

Has the law ever been used?

“I’m not aware of any cases in Ohio where this has been prosecuted,” said Katherine Hunt Federle, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law who specialized in the juvenile justice system. “That doesn’t mean they haven’t. But I’m just not aware of them.

“It’s possible that they’ve been prosecuted in a county but it never made the news or it never was appealed.”

Law rarely prosecuted

A Gazette search of a commercial database of Ohio newspapers and other resources did turn up four instances — over more than a dozen years — of the law being used.

Two of the cases ended in dismissals:

• In 1999, an Akron minister was charged with failing to report suspected sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl by an adult church member. A news story at the time reported city Prosecutor Douglas Powley saying he did not recall the law being used in the previous 10 years.

• In 2005, a former high school principal in New Richmond, near Cincinnati, was accused of failing to report an alleged sexual encounter between a student and coach.

Defendants in the other two cases were convicted. Both involved extreme abuse and neglect:

• A 64-year-old therapist in Lorain County pleaded guilty in 2007 to failing to report the abuse of adopted children who were kept in caged beds.

• Earlier this month, a 51-year-old Montgomery County doctor pleaded no contest to charges of failing to report the neglect of a 14-year-old girl who had cerebral palsy and weighed 28 pounds when she died. Dr. Margaret Edwards, of Trotsville, near Dayton, faces a maximum of 18 months in jail when sentenced next month.

Like Naso, Federle didn’t question the Medina city prosecutor’s decision not to file charges, saying, “He has the discretion to make that call.”
But she saw no flaw in the law.

“The statute is very clear,” she said. “I don’t see any problem with the statute.”

Then why so few prosecutions?

“Because people report,” Federle suggested. “That’s the other possible interpretation.”

No guidelines for third-party calls

If Ohio’s child abuse and neglect law is rarely prosecuted, Virginia’s law requiring educators to report suspected suicidal children is used less — even though it is not a criminal statute. The penalty for not reporting isn’t jail time or a fine but loss of a teaching license.

That hasn’t happened in the 14 years since the law was enacted.

“According to our Licensure Division, no licenses have been revoked because of non-reporting a potential suicide,” said Julie Grimes, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Education.

While Ohio doesn’t have a state law dictating how to handle reports of suicidal children, many school districts have adopted their own policies and procedures.

Medina’s is posted on its website:

“The Board directs all school personnel to be alert to the student who exhibits signs of unusual depression or who threatens or attempts suicide. Any such signs or the report of such signs from another student or staff member should be taken with the utmost seriousness.”

The policy further directs the superintendent to develop “administrative guidelines whereby members of the professional staff understand how to use an intervention procedure.”

A copy of that policy and procedures was given to Medina police during the investigation, along with an email from Schwendeman to the district’s legal counsel, Jim Shields, detailing her actions following the Oct. 31 report of Deven hurting himself:

• “Father came in immediately and took Deven to ER where he was assessed. Follow up counseling appt. scheduled by Mr. Baab.”

• “All office staff were made aware, teachers were on alert. Mr. Baab allowed the counseling staff to facilitate communication between Deven and friends to let them know he was safe.”

• “Regular check ins with staff, teachers and Mr. Baab as needed.”

• “Support for friends and peers continuous.”

But nothing in the email addresses Mahoney’s call on Nov. 16.

The difference between Schwendeman’s response to the cutting report and her reaction to Mahoney’s call raises a key issue: the district’s lack of guidance concerning third-party reports.

While providing step-by-step instructions telling staff members precisely what to do when faced with a suicidal student, the guidelines contain nothing about how to respond to a warning from someone outside the school, such as a parent.

Medina’s teachers aren’t alone in lacking direction on how to handle calls like Mahoney’s.

Suggested improvements

The district’s “Suicide Intervention Process” guidelines are based on “templates” provided by NEOLA, a national consulting firm based in Stow.

CEO Richard N. Clapp confirmed that his firm, which provides consulting services for two-thirds of Ohio’s approximately 600 school districts and about 1,250 districts across the nation, does not offer any recommendations on how to respond to reports from outside the school about a possibly suicidal child.

“Our templates don’t address that,” he said. “No one has ever raised the question … about a third-party call coming in.”

Asked if he thought the guidelines should be revised, Clapp said, “We need to think about this.”

Clapp said Deven Baab’s death could be a catalyst for improving the guidelines.

“When you have circumstances like this, that gives you an opportunity to either learn from it or run from it,” he said. “In our case, we’ll learn from it.

“We’re already in the process of how we make our policies better in this regard because it’s such a sensitive topic. It’s one of those things nobody wants to talk about because we don’t want to think it’s going to happen in our school.

“But it’s happening with greater frequency and we need to figure out how we do that.”

But Clapp stressed the limits of what schools can do about what happens outside their buildings — especially given the restrictions of federal privacy laws.

“The school can’t be responsible for everything that happens in the community 24-7 when they don’t have first-hand knowledge; we just can’t expect that of our schools,” said Clapp, who served 12 years as superintendent of the Woodridge school district in Summit County. “It is challenging enough to deal with what they have to deal with in this time that we’re living in — when kids are under all sorts of other pressures that we never were under when I was a boy.”

Clapp suggested the best way to handle calls from parents and others would be to compile a list of phone numbers of the local suicide hotline and other social services resources “and say these are the people you should call right now.”

District: No change needed

Asked about the lack of specific guidelines for handling third-party calls, Kris Quallich, the Medina Schools’ director of student services, contended no change in procedures is needed.

Quallich argued that the district’s policy on student suicide — stating that “Any such signs or the report of such signs from another student or staff member should be taken with the utmost seriousness” — adequately addresses the question of third-party calls.

“I would say that falls under that policy,” she said.

Quallich said Mahoney’s call properly was handled, adding that Schwendeman was an experienced counselor who knew much more about the situation than Mahoney.

Schwendeman has been a guidance counselor with the district for seven years, first at H.G. Blake Elementary School and then at Claggett, and obtained her clinical counselor’s license in March.

“I trust Julia’s clinical judgment with the information she had that we know but I can’t release because it’s confidential student information,” Quallich said.

Did the school district conduct its own inquiry into how Mahoney’s call was handled?

“Absolutely. We always review when something happens to see if we can do something better,” Quallich said.

But was there any formal evaluation that resulted in a written report — recommendations, conclusion — anything in writing concerning this case?

“No,” Quallich said.

Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com. Contact David Knox at (330) 721-4065 or dknox@medina-gazette.com.