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Decades ago, a local police agency came under scrutiny for failing to notify the public about a man who was sexually assaulting female students on a college campus. All information about the case was withheld so that the deviant might be caught in the act. The ploy worked — but the consequence was that a young woman had to suffer the indignity and possible harm of a sexual assault so the law could get its man.
Policies have changed since then, we believe for the better, allowing the public to learn about incidences of crime as they occur. It’s important that we don’t hamper law enforcement officers in their duties as best as possible. But it’s equally important that the people of this community, state and country be kept informed of potential threats facing their persons and property.
That’s why we were disappointed to learn that a substitute teacher at Jones Dairy Elementary School in Wake Forest was arrested Friday for allegedly taking indecent liberties with children in his classes in late July.
We’re not upset about the arrest, far from it. It’s that we learned of an issue with a substitute several weeks before the arrest, but didn’t know what had transpired — our original tip mentioned a physical, not sexual, assault on campus.
Virtually all of our inquiries to Wake County Schools staff and the Wake County Sheriff’s Office for a description of the allegations were rebuffed.
What was shared was the principal’s message to parents seeking additional information (which didn’t state it was a sexual assault).
The substitute’s name was shared in the message, but redacted in copy provided to us, even though it appears that parents were not required to sign a confidentiality agreement to withhold mentioning his name. In other words, the name was released to the public, but just not to all the people.
We understand that the suspect has rights and the school system has to tread carefully with as yet unproven accusations. But we simply cannot understand, nor can we respect, any decision to keep away from the public information about a possible sexual assailant in the community.
In the ensuing weeks after the alleged incidents, but before his arrest, other children may have come into contact with the suspect, who lives in Wake Forest’s Swan’s Cove neighborhood, their parents wholly unaware of the allegations.
Due to a policy change by Sheriff Donnie Harrison in the past year, incidents are no longer reported on the Sheriff’s Office police-to-citizen website. Incident reports generally do not name suspects, but do state what type of crime occurred.
Only arrests and cases determined to be unfounded are listed. From one perspective, you might say that only success stories are shared, but not other information relevant to the public, such as incidences of armed robbery, home invasion or sexual assault.
It’s increasingly feeling as if the people entrusted to safeguard our children and our property are becoming more and more opaque, revealing as little as possible about any incidents. This is a frightening concept, not just because of what has transpired, but what may transpire in the future.
Earlier this year, a report surfaced of a Wake Forest Middle School student bringing a gun to his bus stop. It turned out to be a BB gun, but that wasn’t obvious at first.
Where he went thereafter was never made clear and due to the intentional obfuscation of the information by school officials, we never did learn the particulars of what occurred. Were students threatened? Was it just for fun? Did the student feel threatened by others? Was it a trial run for a future worse offense? We’re sorry to say that we’ll never know.
This newspaper was told that we had to ask the “right” questions to get the answers we sought. The only way to always get the right question is to know the answer in advance!
In the BB gun incident, after questioning the Wake County Sheriff's Office, we were told that a student had brought a BB gun onto campus.
Almost two weeks later, when we were asking about it, school officials told us it never happened on that day. What they did not disclose was:
•On that day, it didn’t happen at Wake Forest Middle School, but rather at Heritage.
•In the ensuing time between that day and when we were asking, another student had brought a weapon to Wake Forest Middle.
Neither of these incidents were disclosed by Wake County Public Schools. That’s when our reporter was told she had to ask the right questions.
This degree of close mouthedness could set a dangerous precedent. Are our children safe at school? Are our school staffs and law enforcement agencies taking the best measures to protect them from harm?
It begs other questions as well. Have other incidents been covered up on school campuses? Will they make a habit of doing so in the future?
Who does it really serve to withhold details about crimes from the public?
Where is the benefit — to anyone?
The answer escapes us.