© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kansas City school administrator accused of failing to report sexual assault is still working

A photo collage shows the entrance of the Plaza Academy school in Kansas City. Layered over that image are snippets of court documents and a headshot of a man wearing a suit.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Ward Worley is charged in Jackson County with failing to hotline a sexual assault inside Plaza Academy

Ward Worley, executive director of Plaza Academy, was charged in September with a misdemeanor. Because it's a private school, the state has no oversight on personnel issues. The mother of the victim has since enrolled her child at a different school.

The executive director of a private school in Kansas City, Missouri, has been reporting to work despite being charged four months ago with failing to report a sexual assault at the school to state investigators.

Ward Worley, 56, is the executive director at the Plaza Academy near 39th Street and Broadway Boulevard. In September, Worley was charged with one misdemeanor count of failure of a mandated reporter to report child abuse or neglect of a child under 18. The sex was between a student under 14 and a 17-year-old student at Plaza Academy. One witness from the school told police they recorded a meeting with Worley “and during the recording he (Worley) stated he did not hotline the incident as he did his own investigation.”

Police weren’t notified of the assault for months, when the victim's mother alerted authorities. After obtaining records from the school, detectives discovered that “the school was notified of the incident on 02/27/2023, and it was not hotlined until 05/05/2023,” according to court documents. KCPD began its investigation May 5, 2023. Worley was charged in Jackson County on September 27, 2023.

After a court hearing last year, the mother of the victim told KCUR her student is now in another private school.

“I’m just happy that my child is safe and flourishing in a different environment,” she said. KCUR is withholding the name of the mother to protect the identity of her child.

Worley’s next court date is February 14 in Jackson County Circuit Court. If convicted, Worley could spend up to a year in the county jail and pay a $2,000 fine.

Worley returns to work

It’s unclear who, if anyone, approved Worley’s continued presence in the building. Plaza Academy board president Zola Gordy told KCUR at first she wasn’t “at liberty to talk about it” and said the school was waiting for the investigation to end. But when informed the investigation was over and charges filed, Gordy said, “We have a lot of faith in Ward,” and hung up.

Board secretary Steve Marzullo initially agreed to comment but did not return follow-up phone calls. Neither Worley nor Worley’s lawyer, John P. O’Connor, returned calls or messages.

Worley’s return to work does not break any state or local rules. When it comes to state oversight, private schools in Missouri are an island — there is none.

“The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does not have any regulatory authority over private schools in the state, nor does DESE have any authority in personnel decisions in a private school setting,” DESE told KCUR via email.

In Kansas, by contrast, there are accredited private schools that are regulated by the Kansas State Department of Education and must hire licensed teachers and administrators.

“If a licensee fails to report suspected abuse or neglect of a student, my office can investigate and pursue a licensing complaint regardless of whether there is a criminal conviction,” KSDE General Counsel Scott Gordon said in an email to KCUR.

Worley, who has been executive director at Plaza Academy since 2013, does not have any education certificate from the state. He has been licensed by Missouri as a professional counselor since 2007.

“If a private school employee holds an active teaching certificate in Missouri, then DESE would be alerted through a fingerprint match that an educator has been arrested and charged,” the department continued in its email. If that educator is convicted of “a felony or misdemeanor that is a crime of moral turpitude,” then the State Board of Education could suspend or revoke their certificate.

But Worley is not totally immune from professional repercussions. State law that governs counselors says the Committee for Professional Counselors can suspend or revoke the license of anyone found guilty “for any offense directly related to the duties and responsibilities of the occupation.”

As far as Worley’s future at the Plaza Academy, only the school's board has the power to fire him.

What to do when a school employee is charged with a crime

The decision over what to do when a school employee who has contact with students is charged with a misdemeanor is a complicated one. Should the employee be allowed to come to work or should they be placed on paid leave while the case plays out?

Policies vary among public school districts. If the charge is, for example, drunk driving, a district might take no action. A charge of failing to hotline an incident is looked at more seriously and could result in a leave of absence.

In the Kansas City Public Schools, all employees must notify the district if charged or convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. “Failure to notify the district may result in discipline or termination,” according to board policy.

The Shawnee Mission District also requires employees to report an arrest, charge or conviction, except for minor traffic tickets. “The district will evaluate all instances in which an employee has been arrested, charged with, or convicted of any misdemeanor or felony and determine whether the employee can continue to be actively employed in his/her current position,” according to board policy.

The Plaza Academy was organized in 1974 and originally called The New School for Human Education, according to state documents. The mission was “combining book learning with real life experiences to provide a highly individualized education,” according to the school’s articles of incorporation. It changed its name to The Plaza Academy in 1987.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.