The Bentonville School District hosted a parent forum Thursday night after one of its former employees was arrested on suspicion of raping or sexually assaulting at least three students during an after-school program.
Ali Matar, 21, remains in the Benton County Jail on $250,000 bond. He faces two charges of rape and one charge of sexual assault after a five year old and two six year olds from R.E. Baker Elementary School in Bentonville came forward and accused Matar of sexually assaulting or raping them.
The Lecture Hall at Bentonville High School was packed Thursday night with more than 200 parents and school employees. The meeting began at 7 p.m. and went over its scheduled 8:30 p.m. end time.
Supt. Michael Poore ran the meeting with a panel made up of Children’s Advocacy Center of Benton County professionals and two Bentonville police officers.
The CAC provides services for victims of child abuse. Executive Director Beverly Engle was on the panel, as well her staff, consisting of a sexual assault medical examiner, mental health coordinator, forensic interviewer and director of education.
Engle said the panel’s goal was to provide support and education as well as answer what questions they can.
“They are asking those questions,” said Engle. “But they are talking to their neighbor. They are talking to their friend over coffee, and they are probably not getting the kind of answers that are really truly going to be helpful.
“We know they are asking those questions, so we want to provide an environment with the professional people who deal with it,” she said.
Director of Education for the CAC Andrew Lentz said last year in Benton County, there were 643 child abuse cases that came through the center. He said of those cases, two-thirds were sexual abuse cases. He said most kids were between the ages of seven and 12.
Medical examiner Natalie Tibbs talked with parents on how to talk about “safe” and “unsafe” touching. She said parents have to be able to talk to their kids and not ask direct questions.
“There is nothing about this that is enjoyable,” Tibbs said.
Tibbs said one indicator that something may be wrong with a child is excessive behavior. She said if a child has abrupt changes in behavior or does something out of the norm, it may be time to start asking questions.
Tibbs also said that the red flags are just a guideline; no child sexual abuse case is the same.
Most parents did not ask questions on how to talk to their children; instead, most were directed at Poore on the school’s conduct.
Poore said the school has expectations from the state and Department of Education. He said it is an active investigation, and there will be a review by the school district with the help of the police and professionals from the CAC.
Parents’ questions included how Adventure Club’s policies were going to change, if the school will offer a class for students to teach them about sexual abuse and why there was a breakdown in the system.
Adventure Club is an after-school program that employed Matar at the time of the alleged sexual assault and rapes.
Poore said he will be able to answer more questions once the investigation is over.
The Bentonville School Board voted unanimously May 19 to fire Matar.