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Former counselor alleges unofficial school policy led to 5-year-old Riverside student’s death

Gary Blanton III
Gary Blanton III

An unofficial policy of not reporting or delaying reports on suspected child abuse led to the beating death of a 5-year-old boy, according to a former counselor at Chattaroy Elementary School.

“I just felt this resistance all the time to doing the right thing,” Tiffany Zuck said.

In a written declaration filed as part of the ongoing wrongful death lawsuit against the Riverside School District and the Department of Social and Health Services, Zuck outlined a series of missed reporting opportunities that may have saved Gary Blanton III’s life.

Michael McFarland, the attorney representing the Riverside School District, disagrees. In an email response to questions, he said the district’s policies and procedures handling mandatory child abuse reporting are consistent with Washington law.

“Riverside School District takes very seriously its obligation to keep all children in its custody safe from harm,” he said.

He also noted that discovery in the case has just begun and that “when the true facts come out in discovery, the plaintiff’s allegations in the complaint, and Ms. Zuck’s allegations in her declaration, will be proven unfounded.”

Signs of abuse ignored

Zuck’s written report recounts an unofficial policy sharply at odds with posted district policy.

“Riverside supervisors also implemented an across-the-board established practice of not immediately reporting signs of abuse to DSHS,” Zuck said in court documents regarding the state Department of Social and Health Services. “Instead, they would wait up to 48 hours and attempt to ‘work it out’ between the parents and staff before involving DSHS.”

Zuck started working at Chattaroy Elementary in 2014. The work environment was toxic, she said, and teachers were afraid of losing their jobs.

After Blanton’s death in 2015, Zuck reported to police and Child Protective Services that the school district hadn’t reported signs the boy was being abused.

On April 16, 2015, the 5-year-old Blanton told school employees that “Mommy punched me” and complained of head pain. On April 17, 2015, the boy’s aunt, Cynthia Khaleel, called 911 after she said she was unable to wake Blanton up. The boy was airlifted to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, where he later died.

Zuck was fired five days later.

“They didn’t give me a reason; they just said I wasn’t a good fit for their district,” she said.

The boy’s grandmother, Barbara Davis, filed the suit as a representative of the boy’s estate. Any proceeds from the case will go to the boy’s two surviving siblings who live with foster parents on the West Side, said Ryan Dreveskracht, the attorney representing Davis.

“Our position is that the folks that were higher up in the administration either knew this was the policy or should have known,” Dreveskracht said.

As an example of the school’s repeated failure to report, Zuck said in 2014 a parent came to the elementary school in an “obvious state of intoxication” and began digging through students’ desks. While doing so, the parent told Zuck she often drank until she passed out, leaving her children unattended.

Zuck said she reported the incident to the Department of Social and Health Services. Upon learning of the report, school Principal Juanita Murray grew angry, Zuck alleged.

“As she (Murray) stormed into the room, she said to me, ‘We don’t do this out here! I’ve known that family for a long time,’ ” Zuck recounted in court records.

The resistance to reporting suspected abuse claims originated, Zuck alleges, with the school board and then-Superintendent Roberta Kramer.

Kramer is now the assistant superintendent of the Pullman School District. She declined to comment, instead referring questions to the Riverside School District’s current superintendent. Murray, the principal, did not respond to an email requesting comment.

“In my experience, Ms. Murray was manipulated by the superintendent and the school board,” Zuck said in court documents.

In the months leading up to Blanton’s death, Zuck said she and other staff members observed “scratches and deep bruising” on Blanton’s face, which she reported to DSHS.

Several days after contacting DSHS, Blanton’s aunt, Cynthia Khaleel, confronted Zuck and “verbally attacked me” and threatened her.

Khaleel has since been charged with second-degree murder for Blanton’s death and is awaiting trial.

After Khaleel confronted her, Zuck said Murray and Kramer told her to have “no contact” with Blanton or his siblings.

At the same time, Blanton’s grandmother Barbara Davis, began to call the school to tell officials that Blanton and his siblings were being neglected.

Murray dismissed Davis’ concerns, accusing her of lying and simply wanting the school to “do her dirty work,” according to Zuck’s written statement. The practice of not reporting child abuse and neglect was because “Ms. Murray and Ms. Kramer did not like being confronted by hostile parents,” Zuck alleges.

A short, heartbreaking childhood

Blanton’s short life was packed with tragedy.

In 2012, his father, Gary Blanton Jr., was murdered by Patrick Drum. The killing was part of Drum’s vigilante plot to execute sex offenders and drew national notoriety. Gary Blanton Jr., 28, had a conviction for third-degree rape from when he was a juvenile, and was repeatedly in trouble with the law.

Then in July 2014, the boy’s mother, Leslie Blanton, died of pneumonia. Her death prompted the boy to be placed with his aunt in Chattaroy.

The suit also claims DSHS negligently placed Blanton with his aunt despite a documented history of child abuse and neglect. Additionally, the suit claims DSHS did not do an adequate background check on Khaleel and falsified health and safety visitation reports.

Dreveskracht said he believes both DSHS and the school district “dropped the ball.”

“Do I think that each of their indifference and negligence on its own would have resulted in this?” the attorney said. “Yeah, I think so.”

DSHS declined to comment on the wrongful death suit.

Stated policy consistent with law, but questions remain

According to Riverside School District policy, when abuse is suspected “staff or the principal will immediately contact” Child Protective Services. If CPS is unavailable, staff are to contact law enforcement, according to the procedure. The procedure then states staff have 48 hours to report suspected abuse.

Additionally, school staff are required to report suspected abuse to the principal or their supervisor, according to the policy. They must also disclose any reports made to CPS or police.

McFarland, the district’s attorney, pointed out that Riverside School District’s policies are “consistent with Washington law” and “consistent with the model policy and procedure” distributed by the Washington State School Directors’ Association.

According to neighboring Spokane Public Schools policy, staff members or the principal must immediately contact CPS, DSHS or law enforcement. Staff must also notify the principal of suspected abuse and any reports filed with state officials.

“Such contact must be made at the first opportunity, but in no case longer than 48 hours after there is reasonable cause to believe that the child has suffered abuse or neglect,” the policy states.

Norah West, a spokeswoman for DSHS, said those professionals entrusted to be mandatory reporters of child abuse are expected to contact law enforcement or a local DSHS branch at the first opportunity, but no longer than 48 hours after observing the possible abuse. The person who observes the suspected abuse is expected to make the report.

Dreveskracht said the case will likely go to trial in April 2018. There has been no mediation nor settlement discussions.

“If they’re able to sweep this under the rug, the entire community is at risk,” he said. “Every child in the school district is at risk, and this will happen again.”

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