Back To School (Tips for Teachers/School Districts)

(Harrisburg, PA) – While we can all get lost in the excitement and anticipation of a new school year, there are also many issues when it comes to the safety of our children that school districts and teachers need to be acutely aware of and make a priority.

August is one of the busiest months for teachers, educators, and individuals who work with children. From taking one last final summer vacation with your family, to decorating your classroom, and making sure your students will have the supplies they need, back to school season is in full swing.  While we can all get lost in the excitement and anticipation of a new school year, there are also many issues when it comes to the safety of our children that school districts and teachers need to be acutely aware of and make a priority.

Far too often, the media are reporting on cases of child abuse.  From the investigation led by Attorney General Josh Shapiro into the Catholic Diocese, to teachers having sexual relationships with their students, not a day seems to go by when we haven’t caught wind of a breaking news story on child abuse or a deliberate cover-up of child abuse by an institution that we once trusted.

At our organization, the Pa Family Support Alliance (PFSA), staff members work with thousands of individuals and organizations across the Commonwealth on how to prevent, recognize, and report suspected cases of child abuse. We frequently work with and provide trainings to teachers and individuals who are classified as “mandated reporters”.

In the 40 years PFSA has been working to protect Pennsylvania’s children, our experience has taught us two key things. First, parents and the public should know that the overwhelming majority of educators care deeply about their students and want to ensure they are safe and protected, both at school and at home. Teachers have one of the toughest jobs in the world, and most got into their field to help, not hurt children. Second, as a result of the changes to the law in recent years, sometimes school districts and teachers are not always clear on what is required of them when it comes to reporting suspected cases of child abuse, obtaining proper clearances, and having an internal tracking system.

The Child Protective Services Law was overhauled in 2014 and 2015, and included several changes that affect mandated reporters (a mandated reporter is a person who, because of his or her profession, is legally required to report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect to authorities). Many schools and child servicing organizations still have outdated policies which do not reflect the changes that were implemented. The two changes that are most overlooked and misunderstood are:

The elimination of “reporting up the chain of command”, with a point person reporting all suspected cases abuse.  The revised law places the responsibility to report directly on the individual mandated reporter to make that report at the time abuse is suspected. If they tell their supervisor and fail to make the report immediately, they can be charged with failure to report, which now includes felony charges.The circumstances regarding when to report suspected child abuse was greatly expanded. The law now requires mandated reporters to report suspected abuse in certain “off the clock” situations when they suspect abuse due to information that has been disclosed to them.

Schools also need to ensure that their staff and volunteers working with children have child abuse and criminal background clearances – and that they are current. Clearances are required by law for school employees in Pennsylvania and must be renewed every 60 months or 5 years, and while there are costs associated with the clearances, they are minimal.

And finally, school districts need to have and maintain an internal tracking system which serves as a record of which of their personnel, teachers, and volunteers have received child abuse identification and reporting training.  Training of school employees on how to recognize and report suspected child abuse is required every 5 years under Act 126.  Our organization provides free, in-person training on how to recognize and report child abuse, with scenarios that are relevant to their line of work. By conducting in-person training with teachers and school personnel, they are able to discuss situations of suspected abuse and neglect they could encounter, walk through scenarios, and ask questions to get on-the-spot answers.

Words without deeds are fruitless. If schools and teachers are going to live by the mantra that they have zero tolerance for the abuse and neglect of children, they must educate themselves on the law and to be adequately prepared for situations they may encounter this coming school year. Together, we can ensure that Pennsylvania’s children are protected and that they are able to grow up in an environment free of abuse and neglect.

Angela M. Liddle is president and CEO of Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, a statewide nonprofit organization that prevents child abuse and protects children from harm by helping parents learn positive parenting techniques, educating professionals and volunteers who work with children to recognize and report child abuse, and helping community members learn how they can play a positive role in keeping children safe. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you are interested in a free, in-person training at your school contact PFSA by calling 1-800-448-4906 or by email at [email protected]. If you suspect that a child is being abuse or neglected call Pennsylvania’s Childline at 1-800-932-0313.

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