Supporting School Professionals through the Establishment of a School District Policy on Child Maltreatment

Article excerpt

Child abuse and neglect is one of society's most ominous crimes. Maltreatment robs children of dignity and can have adverse consequences for their social, emotional, behavioral, and academic development (Cichetti & Toth, 1995). As a result of the potentially harmful impact that abuse can have on children, all 50 states have enacted mandatory child abuse reporting laws for school professionals (e.g., principals, teachers, counselors, and psychologists; Meyers, 1986). According to McEvoy (as cited in Bridgeland & Duane, 1996, p. 454) "the failure of school personnel to identify and report suspected cases of abuse and neglect can result in civil and even criminal liability."

Research (e.g., Kesner & Robinson, 2002) suggests that school personnel are in the best position to identify and report abuse and maltreatment because they have consistent daily contact with students. The Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (Sedlak & Broadhurst, as cited in Kesner & Robinson) indicated that schools report more cases of child abuse and neglect than any other institution. However, the same study revealed that 84% of all suspected abuse cases in schools are never reported, making schools simultaneously the largest source of both over- and underreporting of child abuse (Kesner & Robinson). Considering the deleterious impact of maltreatment and the daily contact school professionals have with students, school districts would be wise to establish a district-wide policy regarding child maltreatment. Such policy would provide an important support for school professionals, especially teachers and principals. Unfortunately, in many places, a district-wide policy is unavailable. Or, if a policy has been instituted, it may not be communicated properly either to school professionals or to the parents of children they serve. In fact, it is conceivable that a culture may even exist where, for instance, mandated reporting of suspected maltreatment is discouraged in order to preserve a false image that such activity does not occur within a particular district.

Mandated reporting laws place school professionals in a position to protect children from the ill effects of maltreatment (Dombrowski, Ahia & McQuillan, 2003). We contend that school professionals should be provided with information and guidance from administrators with respect to laws and policy (Smith, Morrow, & Gray, 1999) and be supported in their mandated reporting efforts. Indeed, all school personnel should receive formal training in child abuse/neglect issues including identifying, referring, and reporting (Dombrowski et al., 2003; Dombrowski, LeMasney, Ahia & Dickson, 2004; Dombrowski & Gischlar, 2005). They also should be knowledgeable about the law (Baxter & Beer, 1990) and district policy, if such exists. The purpose of this paper is to provide school districts with a framework for establishing a policy regarding child abuse and neglect. This will include a description of how to promote a school culture that recognizes the adverse impact of such and that supports school professionals when taking steps to protect children. A discussion of how to increase collaboration with agencies that are familiar with preventing and/or intervening with child maltreatment also is included. To begin, the paper reviews briefly the adverse developmental outcomes of child abuse and neglect, substantiating the need for an explicit district-wide policy.

Adverse Impact of Child Maltreatment

Broadly defined, child abuse is an act that causes intentional harm or avoidable endangerment to a child under the age of 18-years-old. There are four general categories of child abuse: sexual, physical, emotional, and neglect (Bryant & Milsom, 2005). The educational community may be all too aware of obvious acts of physical and sexual abuse because these crimes often are highlighted in the media. However, the educational community may be less aware of the more prevalent, but equally deleterious, instances of neglect and emotional abuse that do not receive such attention (Dombrowski et al. …