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Prosecutor: School staff failed to report starved child, 12

GALIEN TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) – Four school staff members are facing misdemeanor charges for allegedly failing to report suspected child abuse up to two years before a student was found starved next to a set of railroad tracks in Berrien County.

Three Oaks Elementary School principal Heidi Clark, special education teacher Diane Balling, teacher Sherrie Bender and guidance counselor Matt Cook of St. Joseph are all charged with two counts of failing to report suspected child abuse or neglect in 2015 and 2016.

The prosecutor’s office said all four administrators had information about the boy’s weight, aggressive behavior in obtaining food and physical well-being up to two years before he was found.

A railroad worker discovered the boy on Aug. 11 near railroad tracks in Galien Township, near the Michigan-Indiana border. The boy lived nearby and had been reported missing the evening before, authorities said.

Authorities took the boy to a doctor who found his condition was life-threatening, according to the Berrien County Prosecutor’s Office. The doctor said the boy weighed 47 pounds, with each rib showing. He was dehydrated, bruised, had a cut lip and old cigarette burns, the doctor said.

According to prosecutors, the child told authorities his father and stepmother kept him from eating. He said he ran away because he “was tired being treated like a dog and he didn’t think he would reach his 13th birthday.”

The boy’s father, Aaron Zemke and stepmother, Alicia Zemke were charged with child abuse, torture and other felony charges. The couple pleaded no contest to first-degree child abuse earlier this year and were each sentenced to 20 to 80 years in prison.

The prosecutor said the school staff members never reported their observations about the boy to the Department of Health and Human Services, and allegedly didn’t share those observations with the agency until several months into its December 2015 investigation.

All four school staff members are expected in a St. Joseph courtroom for pretrial conferences the week of June 5. Each count of failing to report suspected child abuse or neglect carries a maximum punishment of 93 days in jail.

The River Valley School District Superintendent Will Kearney released the following statement on Friday:

“On May 18, 2017, River Valley School District was notified by the Berrien County prosecutor that four staff members were being charged with misdemeanors around the issue of failing to report suspected child abuse. The failure to report charges focus on the case of a former student and are alleged to have occurred in 2015 and 2016.

“While our records indicate that child abuse was reported by a district staff member in this case, we are awaiting further information from the prosecutor’s office,” stated Will Kearney, River Valley Public Schools Superintendent. “We have and will continue to cooperate fully with any criminal investigation.”

District officials confirmed that a District employee did in fact report suspected abuse in December of 2015. The district was subsequently notified by the state in February of 2016 that the evidence from their investigation did not support the concern and thus no action was being taken.

“We have a school policy that puts the needs of our children and community first. The policy is consistent with the law and every teacher and school administrator is informed of the policy and procedures annually,” noted Superintendent Kearney. “We expect every staff member to report suspected abuse immediately.”

The four staff members were expected to be arraigned on the misdemeanor charges of failure to report, over the course of the week of May 22, 2017. The district notified the staff members of the impending charges, provided them with additional copies of the school policy on reporting suspected abuse, and noted that the district would wait to see the outcomes and facts, prior to considering whether disciplinary action should be taken.

“While this is difficult, we will remain focused on our educational mission as well as celebrating the many outstanding accomplishments of the students and staff at River Valley this past year,” said Kearney.”

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