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High court reinstates ex-principal's conviction

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INDIANAPOLIS — A former Muncie high school principal "dawdled" when he should have reported a 16-year-old student's rape, a divided Indiana Supreme Court ruled Thursday in reinstating a misdemeanor conviction for failing to immediately report child abuse.

The court, in a 3-2 decision, reinstated the conviction of former Muncie Central Principal Christopher Smith for not notifying police and the Department of Child Services right away, as required under Indiana law.

The victim, a resident of a troubled children's home, went to the principal's office around noon on Nov. 9, 2010, and said that she had been raped in a school restroom. Police said she sat in Smith's office for more than two hours and was told to put her complaint in writing while her alleged attacker was allowed to leave the building. Police didn't get involved until about four hours later, when a worker from the children's home took the girl to a hospital to be examined.

"Smith dawdled, delayed, and did seemingly everything he could to not contact DCS or the police," Justice Steven David wrote in the majority opinion.

The boy, also 16 at the time, later admitted the rape and was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.

"It is apparent that Christopher Smith failed in his duty to help protect one of his trusted charges," David wrote. "Whether this failure was out of ignorance, a desire to protect the reputation of the perpetrator, or perhaps a wish to keep his school from receiving negative publicity on his watch is not clear."

An attorney for Smith did not immediately respond to a telephone message seeking comment. Smith was reassigned to another non-principal position in the school district.

Smith was sentenced to 120 days in jail, all suspended to probation, ordered to serve 100 hours of community service and to pay a $100 fine and court costs following his conviction. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the conviction last year in a 2-1 decision, ruling that Smith had to have reason to believe abuse had occurred before he was required to report it.

The Court of Appeals decision noted that other administrators advised Smith that an incident involving two 16-year-olds wasn't considered child abuse since an adult wasn't involved. Administrators also doubted the girl's account because she had faked an epileptic attack earlier in the school year.

Smith challenged the conviction on the grounds that the statute, and particularly the word "immediately," were vague, but David wrote that ordinary people would understand the word means without "any intermediate intervention or appreciable delay." David noted that on the day of the rape, between three and five police officers were on school grounds serving as security officers.

Justices Robert Rucker and Brent Dickson dissented in the 3-2 decision, saying the state had failed to prove its case against Smith.

"The statutes at issue are ambiguous, confusing, complex and interwoven," said the dissent written by Rucker, to which Dickson concurred.

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