The school policy was that if a teacher suspected child abuse, she was to report it to the principal, who would then decide whether to hotline the report. Twice the teacher had gone to the principal with her concerns, and both times he had rejected them as baseless.
“I know this child’s father,” the principal explained. “He’s a professional. He would never hit a child.” And so no call was made.
But the third time the child came to school with bruises, the teacher decided she had a moral obligation to contact Child Protective Services. If she got into trouble at school, so be it. It turned out that this professional man, well-respected in the community, had been abusing his child – and his wife – for years.
The principal, a colleague in the New York State district where I was working at the time, was astonished, but
not ready to accept responsibility. He noted that he served with the father on the board of a local bank and that both of them belonged to one of the local service organizations. “How would anyone know?” was his basic defense.
As a principal myself, I took a more pragmatic view: If you suspect abuse, I told teachers and staff, hotline it and let me know. We’ll let Child Protective Services, the people trained to make judgments, decide whether our suspicion warrants investigation. I knew I wasn’t qualified to make the decision and frankly, I didn’t want to be responsible for making the decision.
So we made the calls and sometimes we were wrong. Sometimes Child Protective told us our suspicions were unfounded. Sometimes parents were very angry with us for calling in the authorities. Sometimes teachers mistook a lack of middle class values for abuse.
But sometimes we were right.
At the time I was a principal, state law identified “school officials” as mandated reporters. Most interpreted
“school officials” to mean administrators. In 2007 the law was changed to clarify that school officials are anyone who has a license or certificate to work with kids – teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, social workers, and nurses, among others. The law also states that school districts cannot retaliate against an employee who makes a child abuse report. In addition, principals and supervisors cannot make prior approval a necessity before a teacher or other employee files a report.
Currently in Pennsylvania, as we all know by now, teachers or coaches are only mandated to report incidents of child abuse to their superiors. Once they’ve done that, they’ve fulfilled their legal obligation. There is talk now of changing the law to make all school personnel mandated reporters.
The change is necessary. One might think that ethics or a sense of morality would kick in when you report an incident and nothing is done, but not everyone has the courage to do what’s right as that teacher did in my former district. All school people need to be mandated reporters; protecting kids is everyone’s responsibility.