Abuse Alert

By Edwin C. Darden 

For some adults, children are merely vulnerable, trusting souls who make a perfect target for abuse. Thankfully, the law intervenes, and school district employees -- who often have a front seat for seeing evidence or hearing about cruelty -- have a staunch legal obligation to tell what they know or suspect.

The maltreatment can take many forms: sexual exploitation, verbal berating, neglect, mental abuse, and physical punishment. Whatever the method, however, when the student arrives at class the question for school officials is this: What response is required and what response is desired?

To be clear, we are talking about abuse that happens off school grounds and does not involve school personnel. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), passed in 1974 and amended in 2003, is the major federal law governing the subject. It requires every state to adopt a mandatory child abuse reporting law, but leaves many details to local judgment. Thus, state laws differ on the particulars of who has a legal duty to report child abuse.

CAPTA defines child abuse and neglect as:

• Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker that results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or

• An act or failure to act that presents an imminent risk of serious harm.

Educators are in a unique position to observe and interact with children daily and to learn about their home lives. According to U.S. government records, 17 percent of all child abuse reports (the largest of any single group) came from teachers. Often, parents are the perpetrators.

Beyond just teachers and principals, state laws commonly obligate instructional assistants, cafeteria workers, custodians, and other staff to report abuse. Indisputable proof is not needed to trigger the duty to disclose, but rather reasonable suspicion that abuse or neglect is taking place. 

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