A Fairfax County judge dismissed charges yesterday against a Reston elementary school principal who had been accused of failing to report suspected child abuse by an elderly volunteer.
District Judge Ian M. O'Flaherty ended the trial of Ricki Harvey, 55, principal at Dogwood Elementary, even before defense attorneys presented her side. He said the prosecutor had not proven that Harvey knew enough about possible abuse by the volunteer, Kenneth Bayer, 88, to require her to report it to authorities.
"Is there a hunch? Is there some smoke possible?" O'Flaherty said. "Is there reasonable suspicion that the defendant should have taken action? I can't say that."
Harvey, an educator since the mid-1970s who was named Virginia's National Distinguished Principal of 2004 by the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals, cried and hugged supporters outside the courtroom. She said she has made several reports to child protective services over the years when she suspected a child might have been abused.
"I said from the beginning that I would never put children in harm's way," said Harvey, who is retiring this summer. "I have spent 33 years caring for children, protecting them, and the judge saw that."
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Michael P. Ben'Ary yesterday said he respected the ruling but was disappointed. "We hope that at the very least there's been enough exposure to the issue that teachers and school administrators will be more inclined to come forward with this type of information," he said.
Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale said he was "very glad" to learn that Harvey had been cleared: "I think it's highly consistent with her history in education where she has been very compassionate about kids."
Dale said the incident prompted the school system to refine its policy on reporting suspected abuse. In the past, employees had been told to report their suspicions to the principal, who would then raise concerns with authorities, he said. Now the policy requires workers to report any suspicions directly to authorities as well as to alert the school principal.
Bayer, who volunteered in three county elementary schools, is awaiting trial on two counts of aggravated sexual battery and one count of indecent exposure in connection with the abuse of a 13-year-old girl who was not a Dogwood student. Police said the incidents occurred in the girl's home.
A Fairfax detective testified that the investigation involving Bayer is continuing and that additional charges involving Dogwood students could be filed.
Ben'Ary did not contend that Harvey knew about the possible abuse of the 13-year-old girl but alleged in court that she failed to report allegations that Bayer improperly touched children at Dogwood on two occasions.
Katherine Jones, a teacher for English language learners who worked at Dogwood, testified that in November 2003 that she spotted Bayer with his hand on a third-grader's "bottom" as he was reading to the girl. Jones said she reported the incident to a school counselor a few days later.
Jones said that several months later, in April 2004, she met with Harvey and another administrator and was questioned about the incident. Two days later, Jones testified, Harvey held a meeting with teachers and other staff members who came into contact with Bayer.
Jones said Harvey told teachers that it was "unprofessional" to discuss the allegation and that Bayer was "a harmless old man who was expressing affection for children." Another teacher testified that at the same meeting Harvey said Bayer should volunteer only in classrooms with a teacher present.
The mother of a former Dogwood first-grader testified that she called Harvey in May 2003 after her daughter complained that Bayer rubbed her back and stomach under her shirt.
Harvey had been charged with two counts of failure to report suspected abuse. O'Flaherty dismissed the charge involving the first-grader at the start of the proceeding, ruling that the one-year statute of limitations had expired.