The attorney for the former Omaha elementary principal accused of child abuse for failing to report molestation had quite the battery of witnesses lined up for the principal’s trial, slated for next week.
Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Cheryl Logan. Three retired principals. Several former teachers. Even Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine.
What would they have been questioned about?
The confusion in OPS in 2018 about the district’s child-abuse reporting policy.
State law requires anyone, especially educators and medical personnel, to immediately report suspected child abuse to police or Child Protective Services — the very law that former Fontenelle Elementary Principal Eric Nelson was accused of violating.
But at the time, OPS administrators had a confusing practice that called for employees to report first to a principal, then to human resources, then to CPS, as long as they did so within 24 hours.
Nelson’s attorney, Steve Lefler, also hoped to question witnesses on whether OPS officials had properly vetted Gregory Sedlacek, the now-convicted teacher who had a past checkered with inappropriate behavior around children.
That look behind OPS’s curtain won’t happen, at least not in a Douglas County courtroom.
In a plea bargain, Nelson pleaded no contest this week to a misdemeanor charge of failure to report child abuse. He faces up to three months in jail or one year of probation when he is sentenced in April. In return for his plea, prosecutors agreed to drop a felony charge of child abuse.
And Nelson, who now works as a skilled laborer, has agreed to not seek to renew his state education certification.
Lefler said he had looked forward to, in essence, putting OPS on trial for what he called the district’s “confusing” child-abuse reporting policy.
Interviews with several former principals and teachers showed that no one had much training on reporting child abuse — only a former policy that said administrators had 24 hours to investigate and report, Lefler said.
Among the witnesses, Lefler said, he would have called a longtime substitute teacher to testify that she called district officials to say she wanted to go through training on child-abuse reporting and was told that substitute teachers didn’t “need to worry about it.”
“It was going to be a marvelous trial,” Lefler said. “I had a number of retired principals who were going to testify that the district’s policy (then) was confusing as to what their responsibilities as reporters were.”
Sedlacek was arrested in November 2018 after teachers saw him with his hand up the dress of a first grader on the playground. Interviews eventually revealed that Sedlacek had molested six students, ages 6 and 7. He is now serving 40 to 65 years in prison.
On Nov. 19, 2018, other teachers became concerned about Sedlacek’s behavior around the girls and reported what they saw to Nelson. One student teacher said she looked out a school window overlooking the playground and saw Sedlacek rubbing a girl’s legs and his hands disappearing under her skirt. That happened about 10:35 a.m.
The student teacher notified the classroom teacher, who took photos of Sedlacek on the playground. The first grade teacher then called Nelson to her classroom and showed him the photos she had taken and told him of the behavior she had witnessed.
Nelson has said he notified the district’s human resources department on Nov. 19, 2018, the same day that those teachers alerted him. But in an affidavit, Omaha police said they could find no phone records indicating that Nelson called the human resources department on Nov. 19, and human resources officials said they were not informed about the situation until the next day by Fontenelle’s assistant principal, Cheryl Prine.
Lefler said prosecutors were making an example out of Nelson, noting that no other OPS administrators or teachers have been charged with failing to report child abuse. Lefler said Nelson was a lifelong educator and a popular principal. More than 500 people signed a petition to restore him as principal, despite the allegations in this case, Lefler said.
“In my humble opinion, I think Mr. Nelson was made a scapegoat, a sacrificial lamb,” Lefler said.
Kleine called that “nonsense.”
He said surveillance video of Sedlacek and the girl on the playground was “shocking.” He said Nelson had a duty to report that right away.
Instead, Nelson had gone home that evening. The next morning, he had gone to a medical appointment. Teachers were alarmed to find Sedlacek back in his classroom. An assistant principal called OPS officials to report the abuse, and Sedlacek was yanked from the classroom.
When Nelson returned, he reportedly yelled at the assistant principal that Sedlacek’s livelihood was on the line, Kleine said.
“Mr. Nelson has to be held accountable and responsible for what he neglected to do,” Kleine said. “It’s not anyone else’s fault that he didn’t report what he was supposed to report. He made a serious mistake, and he’s going to be held responsible.”
Lefler questioned why another OPS administrator also wasn’t held responsible. In a December article, The World-Herald reported on multiple signs that former Davis Middle School Principal Dan Bartels missed as former teacher Brian Robeson groomed and then sexually assaulted a student there.
Ethically, Kleine said, he cannot comment on not bringing charges against individuals. However, the veteran county attorney acknowledged that he has had frustrations with OPS in the past — including in the district’s handling of the 2010 sexual assault case involving former Nathan Hale Middle School teacher Shad Knutson. Five girls came forward alleging that Knutson had molested or attempted to molest them. He’s now in prison.
In 2012, in response to the Knutson case, OPS developed a mandatory reporting policy that many considered confusing. That 2012 policy said “employees shall report such incident or cause a report of child abuse or neglect to be made to the principal and shall also personally assure that the matter has been reported to Child Protective Services or law enforcement within 24 hours.”
Former principals told Lefler they were required to contact human resources, which would launch an investigation.
A new OPS policy passed in December mirrors state law by urging employees who have “reasonable cause” to believe a child has been abused to call police or CPS directly. It also no longer mentions a 24-hour grace period.
“It’s a positive move,” Kleine said. “I certainly hope this case and the attention to it has had an impact. The message is simple: Everybody has a duty to report.”