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Governor: Strengthen independence of OPA, ‘create greater safety for our students’  

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GOVERNOR Ralph DLG Torres on Thursday asked the Legislature to “strengthen the independence and autonomy of the Office of the Public Auditor,” and to “create greater safety for our students.”

In a four-page letter to Senate President Victor B. Hocog and Speaker Blas Jonathan Attao, the governor said he is providing them with “a set of my legislative priorities that will enhance transparency of administrative actions, pursue the strengthening of our enforcement responsibilities, and increase the efficacy of public services to the community.”

These include local enforcement of occupational health and safety rules.

“I need not tell you the importance of upholding labor standards and the critical need for greater levels of labor safety and health enforcement,” the governor said. “We simply cannot rely on federal enforcement to ensure the health and safety of our people. However, the Legislature should recognize the importance of this responsibility and locate or generate sufficient funding to ensure a successful administration of these goals.”

Torres said there is also a need to “strengthen Commonwealth Casino Commission regulatory powers.”

He said the required legislation is already before lawmakers in House Bill 21-22. “I will note that this legislation, in similar form, has been before you for several years. Action at this time is appropriate and requested to ensure the responsible entity for enforcement is given the tools necessary to administer…their important mandate.”

As for the Office of the Public Auditor, the governor said:

“Much attention has been given to allegations of corruption over the course of many administrations. While the majority of these allegations find their basis in political rhetoric and deflection, there is a more productive role for the Legislature to play in the assurance of public accountability and transparency, and that is to review and strengthen the authority provided to the Office of the Public Auditor to deter, detect, investigate and prosecute crimes involving public corruption, fraud, waste, and abuse of public funds.”

He said the present law relating to OPA “is outdated and has not responded to changes in laws, agency responsibilities and the increased demands of the public for public accountability. Several amendments offered to strengthen the powers of OPA have been provided to the Legislature in the past, offered by both minority and majority members. I ask that the Legislature review these past proposals, engage with the public auditor about methods to strengthen this important agency, and work toward passage of these amendments.”

He said his administration “has always been transparent and responsive to requests for information, [but] the constant and baseless allegations by some members of the Legislature [are] a waste of this administration’s and the public’s time when action can be taken to address the root causes of their alleged concerns.”

The governor at the same time reminded lawmakers that “over the course of many decades, parents and stakeholders of our Public School System have experienced unimaginable concern over allegations of sexual abuse of students by teachers or individuals of authority entrusted to care [for] and develop our children. Yet, these concerns have not been addressed satisfactorily. The question of whether our Public School System is a safe place for our children to learn, free from the threat of abuse should be a primary concern for the Legislature.”

To create greater accountability within PSS,  the governor said the Legislature should “review and strengthen the provisions of the law dealing with the use of school authority to facilitate the abuse of minors. There should be stricter penalties for such a heinous crime [against] the moral decency of our community.”

The Legislature, he added, should consider increasing the accountability on allegations of sexual abuse of students by law and require a formal request for investigation should such allegations arise.

“I will be requesting the Office of the Attorney General to conduct a formal investigation of previous allegations of sexual abuse within the Public School System, to include the previous actions taken by school administrators, results of internal investigations, and protocols of the Public School System for responding to allegations going forward. It is critical that we have a formal investigation of past allegations of abuse so that their mistakes are not repeated,” the governor said.

“As a part of this effort to hold accountable the actions of sexual predators in our school system, I further request your support for strengthening the elimination of the statute of limitations on sexual abuse of minors, especially in the instance where an individual uses their influence as a teacher, administrator or official to violate the innocence of any member of our student community. I am hopeful for this investigation and look forward to sharing with you its findings.”

He said government officials “must use our authority toward this effort to ensure that violent sexual offenders still present in our community are held accountable and trust can be reestablished among the many stakeholders of our education system.”

PSS reaction

In response to the governor’s concerns, Commissioner of Education Dr. Alfred Ada issued the following statement Thursday evening:

“The Public School System has a duty to serve and protect each and every individual, including and in particular,  the children of this Commonwealth, the largest stakeholders of our public education. We support initiatives that are aimed at improving and complementing the child protection systems and protocols that have been established to safeguard both our children and personnel from all forms of risk, including sexual abuse.

“As such, the school district believes that the intent of Gov. Ralph Torres’ proposals is the right way forward: it takes seriously the well-being of every student, for them to freely enjoy an environment where respect and inclusion make possible the deepest forms of intellectual, emotional, and character growth.

“As the largest CNMI government instrumentality providing direct services to the single largest segment of our population, this is a welcome support. We have been collaborating with our government and private sector partners in helping us better, improve and toughen our existing student and employee protection systems.

“This partnership is part of our long-term commitment of continually improving educational opportunities to our children, which include affording them all necessary protections to thrive and grow in a safe learning environment.

“PSS had been investing over the years in aggressive, continuing education through regular professional development and training, including tapping nationally-recognized experts to train our staff and personnel; implement ways from meta research from highly-respected education think tanks that will prevent and stop sexual abuse and violence in all of our public schools on Saipan, Tinian and Rota.

“Our students are also provided with support systems in preventing and reporting abuses.  We have highly-trained professionals leading our emotional-and-trauma support system available in all of our elementary, middle and high schools, which we believe is essential and critical for every student’s learning free from fear and or abuse.

“Our public school students are also part of our school district’s aggressive campaign against all forms of abuses through the respective school-based Youth Advisory Panel. Our YAP has become a successful platform for student learning, student leadership and forum in tackling issues that impact student learning.

“These investments are part of our PSS’ stringent student-centered protection, safety, and reporting measures.”

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