Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee‘s found herself in a tough spot of late over comments she gave to a business magazine. “I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school,” she told Fast Company’s Jeff Chu.

That “sex with children” line has dropped jaws across the city and thus demands some more detail. How could a D.C. Public Schools teacher have sex with a student and remain on the job, sticking around long enough to be fired for budgetary reasons?

So far, reporters’ inquiries have gotten the old “personnel matter” excuse and some “I’ll get back to you”s. Here’s one reason why that strategy isn’t going to fly: Under D.C. law, certain people whose jobs put them into contact with children are called “mandatory reporters.” Put simply, it means that if they suspect that a child under their care is being abused, they are required by law to tell the police or the Child and Family Services Agency.

Among those with mandatory reporting responsibility are “school officials.” According to a D.C. government guide on the subject [PDF], you are required to blow the whistle immediately “when, in your professional capacity or within the scope of your employment, you know or reasonably suspect that an infant, child, or teen has been abused or is in immediate danger of being abused.”

Now it’s highly unlikely that Rhee herself encountered the child (or children) who had sex with this teacher (or teachers) whom she refers to in the quote. And there’s quite a good chance that the incident in question happened before Rhee’s tenure at DCPS. But certainly, if Rhee is repeating these allegations, other school officials would have had knowledge of the situation and would also have been legally bound to “immediately notify the person in charge of the institution or his or her designated agent who shall then be required to make the report” to the authorities. That makes a who-knew-and-when-did-they-know-it type of response crucial in this case.

Incidentally, failure by a mandatory reporter to alert authorities to child abuse is a misdemeanor punished by up to a $300 fine and 90 days in jail.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery