Dayton teachers seek law to protect kids like Takoda Collins

Dayton Public Schools employees are writing to Ohio leaders, seeking a change in state law to better protect students who are at risk of child abuse and are removed from school.

The letter-writing campaign began over the holidays, after the Dec. 13 death of Takoda Collins. The boy was removed from a Dayton elementary school by his father in May 2018, during the final two weeks of his third-grade year, according to school employees.

Days earlier, on May 11, a school employee reported child abuse concerns to both Dayton police and Montgomery County Children Services.

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Takoda’s father, Al-Mutahan McLean, followed state rules that summer to officially withdraw and homeschool the boy, then filed state-required homeschooling documents again in summer 2019, according to DPS Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli.

Takoda remained in McLean’s until he died Dec. 13 at age 10 after what court documents called “extreme abuse” that had taken place over a span of years. Children Services officials have declined to release documents about their involvement, citing state law and an ongoing criminal investigation.

Joni Watson, the art teacher at Horace Mann Elementary where Takoda attended, said the school’s teachers “are just devastated” over the boy’s death. Watson said she had Takoda in her art classes from 2015-18, calling him “a really cute little kid.”

She explained the legal change teachers are seeking.

“If a child is pulled out of a public school who has had any reports to (Children Services) concerning abuse or suspected abuse, then there needs to be something additional put in place to ensure that child is checked on,” Watson said, adding that she copied Sen. Sherrod Brown on her letter. “Once a child is pulled out of school, we can’t go check on them. They’re not our students anymore.”

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Thousands of Ohio families safely homeschool their children each year. Ohio Department of Education data shows about 31,000 students were homeschooled in 2018, up from 20,000 in 2012.

The change DPS staffers are seeking would only apply in cases where there were reports of suspected abuse before the child was removed from school, thus preventing a potential abuser from avoiding scrutiny.

State Sen. Steve Huffman, whose district includes both Takoda’s house and Horace Mann school, said he’s already received a letter on the topic. Huffman, R-Tipp City, cautioned against a rush to judgment or new law, saying he wants more details first.

“We need to first look at the process and particularly with the responsibility of Children Services to see if they dropped the ball — and then look and see if we need to enact something like what’s been proposed,” Huffman said. “We need to get all the facts and then decide (what to do) so this never happens again.”

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In 2016, Dayton Police told Children Services about claims of physical punishment made by Takoda’s older brother, according to a DPD information report. In 2018, the Horace Mann school employee called both Dayton Police and Children Services about abuse of Takoda, according to public records. Lolli and Watson both said that was just one of multiple calls to Children Services from school staff about the boy.

And in May 2019 Takoda’s mother, Robin Collins, reported abuse to police, adding that McLean said if she didn’t come to get Takoda, “something bad is going to happen.” The “incident brief report” from the Regional Dispatch Center on that day says “Robin continues to call in well checks.” It then says “Takoda is being taken care of and still has behavioral issues. Al appears to be (taking) care of his needs with no concerns.”

McLean now faces seven felony charges, including endangering children, felonious assault and rape of a child under 13. He pleaded not guilty and is being held at the Montgomery County Jail on $1 million bond.

David Romick, president of Dayton’s teachers union, said his members get annual online training that includes steps in identifying abuse and how to talk to kids about those issues. Asked if it was common or rare for DPS teachers to have to call Children Services, Romick said, “it happens. And because we’re mandatory reporters, we have to advise our teachers to err on the side of caution.

“Because children are involved, we can’t afford to not report something that may be abuse.”

RELATED: Neighbors say they never saw Takoda at house

Dayton Public Schools’ board policy requires teachers, nurses and others to do at least four hours of training “in prevention of child abuse, violence and substance abuse, school safety and promotion of positive youth development” every five years.

Watson has made multiple calls to Children Services in her career, saying that she has gotten notifications from the agency in some instances on whether they are opening a case.

Dayton Public Schools students and teachers return from their two-week holiday break today and will be together for the first time since Takoda’s death became known.

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“It’s rough,” Watson said last week, adding that school officials were discussing some kind of memorial. “It’s going to be a rough way to go when we come back.”

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