Column | Mandated-reporter training needed for student safety

October 24, 2013 

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    Learn more about the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance at www.pa-fsa.org.

    To report suspected child abuse in Pennsylvania, call ChildLine at 800-932-0313.

It’s a headline that’s sadly too familiar: An assistant principal at Susquehanna Township High School in Dauphin County is facing charges for allegedly having sex with a 16-year-old female student.

The additional headline here, however, is that the county district attorney’s office is investigating whether school officials followed mandatory reporting requirements.

Teachers, guidance counselors and school staff, like other professionals who regularly come into contact with children, are mandated reporters — legally required to report cases of suspected child abuse immediately.

According to school district statements to the media, when told months ago that something inappropriate was happening, the school administration investigated and came to the conclusion that there was nothing to the rumors.

Should the suspicion of abuse have been reported earlier? Could this have been prevented? Those questions will have to be investigated by others whose job it is to do so.

In the meantime, for those of us in the business of protecting children, the ongoing question is: Would mandated-reporter training for all educators make a difference in such situations?

More educators gaining a clear understanding of what their duties are can help prevent tragedies that harm our children and our schools.

Beyond this particular headline, we don’t need to look far to find tragically teachable moments throughout Pennsylvania.

The Professional Standards and Practices Commission, which oversees the teacher discipline system, provides training and assistance to school entities on issues related to reporting teacher misconduct, appropriate student-teacher relationships and the red flags associated with sexual misconduct.

The commission recognizes that the vast majority of teachers in the commonwealth conduct themselves with the utmost integrity, but we all must work together to remove those who impugn the profession by engaging in misconduct.

The PSPC noted in its 2012 report that during 2012, there were 228 disciplinary actions imposed on educators. Slightly more than half of these cases involved sexual misconduct.

The violations ranged from outright assault to “grooming behaviors” such as furnishing alcohol to students.

New technologies have created new avenues for inappropriateness. For example, the report includes a teacher who sent sexually explicit text messages to a student and a teacher who downloaded sexually explicit materials on school equipment, sometimes when students were in the classroom.

Although these numbers represent a tiny minority of educators, we’re still talking about more than 200 instances in which we should be asking whether there are opportunities for teachers who suspect abuse has or could occur to feel better informed and supported to take action.

Teacher certificates in Pennsylvania can be obtained without training in child-abuse recognition and reporting.

Act 126, which became law this year, mandates that all educators receive training on how to recognize and report abuse and sexual misconduct under the Child Protective Services Law and the Professional Educator Discipline Act.

We need to put that law into action.

The Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance provides training throughout the state on the requirements of mandated reporting of child abuse and neglect. It includes how to recognize the signs and symptoms of child abuse, types of abuse and associated indicators and how to report cases of suspected child abuse or neglect.

The three-hour training costs about $30 per educator. In these tight budgetary times, schools will ask how to pay for that.

But the costs of potential litigation and liability for schools far outweigh the costs of prevention through training. And we need to have a larger public discussion about how abuse recognition and reporting training can become a funding priority.

The training developed by PFSA teaches people not to look in one isolated area, but to take the whole well-being of a child into account. Being a mandated reporter does not mean that you must solve a potential problem on your own. You don’t have to investigate; you simply need to report.

We all need to hold each other accountable to a higher level of awareness and concern for the well-being of children so that — whether it is the actions of a neighbor, colleague or relative that concerns us — we feel supported in voicing that concern through a professional channel.

We cannot live in a society that protects institutions more than we protect kids.

Angela M. Liddle is executive director of the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance. To report suspected child abuse in Pennsylvania, call ChildLine at 800-932-0313.

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