A Tough Call

By Beth Reinhard — May 01, 1998 6 min read
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Something is clearly wrong with the 5-year-old kindergartner. He comes to school sporadically. And when he does show up, his teeth are dirty, and he’s wearing ill-fitting clothes. He eats out of the school garbage can.

The boy’s teacher, a 36-year-old in her first year at a New York City elementary school, is legally required to report these signs of possible abuse to a state hot line. But she can’t quite bring herself to do it. She informed a guidance counselor but isn’t sure that person filed a report. “I’m afraid to call,” the teacher says. “Besides, he always comes back to school after two or three days.”

She’s not alone. Many teachers in school systems across the country—large and small—find it difficult to detect and report signs of abuse or neglect. The problem has become painfully visible in New York, where teachers and school officials have been blamed recently for failing to prevent several fatalities caused by abuse. “The fault lies principally with whoever is abusing the child,” says Edward Stancik, the independent investigator for the city’s public schools. “But we have to face the fact that the schools are in a position to try to stop it. You hate to think that the school system has gotten so bad that we can’t focus on this problem.”

The problem, though, is by no means limited to New York. Although reporting mandates vary slightly, all 50 states require teachers to notify authorities if they suspect a child is in danger. “Child abuse does not respect geography, ethnicity, or race,” says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center. “It can happen anywhere.”

Next to parents, Stephens points out, teachers spend more time with youngsters than any other adult. “In many ways,” he says, “they are the first line of defense.”

In 1987, a 6-year-old New York girl named Lisa Steinberg was beaten to death by her mother’s husband. A school board report on the murder concluded that district educators should have reported signs of abuse long before Lisa’s death but lacked training in how to handle such situations. It was a wake-up call for the school system, spurring district officials to step up efforts to prevent abuse.

The state responded, too, requiring school staff members to attend a two-hour workshop on child abuse to become licensed. Schools are also supposed to hold annual workshops on the subject and create on-site abuse-prevention teams. “Unfortunately, Lisa had to die for a law to go into effect,” Esther Liss-Turner tells some two dozen teachers attending a Brooklyn workshop sponsored by the United Federation of Teachers, which offers abuse-prevention sessions free of charge at the union’s offices throughout the city.

Over the distant rumbling of the subway, Liss-Turner asks the teachers to describe the signs of possible abuse and neglect. They respond: Black eyes. Welts. Hair pulled out at the roots. Depression. Promiscuity. Truancy. Inappropriate clothing. The list goes on.

Liss-Turner, a special education teacher who leads workshops part time, stresses that any sign of possible mistreatment must be reported to the principal, who is responsible for calling the state hot line. If the principal fails to make the call, she says, the burden falls on the teacher. “God forbid anything happened to the child and it became a court case; you can be held liable,” Liss-Turner warns. “If you’re going to make a mistake, err on the side of the child.”

After her presentation, she fields questions. “Can I be sued by a parent?” one teacher asks. Yes, Liss-Turner says, but the law protects educators who unknowingly make false reports.

Another wonders whether it’s OK to question the child? No, Liss-Turner says.

“Should I call the parents if I suspect abuse?” a third teacher asks. Again, the answer is no.

A teacher seated in the back row voices a concern many in the room must share. “These days,” she says, “schools have so many of the responsibilities that parents should have. We feed the children. We make sure they go to school. Parents aren’t doing their jobs, so teachers have to follow up.”

Later, Liss-Turner says: “People have told me that they’ve tried to call the hot line, and the phone just rings and rings. Teachers don’t have time to sit on the phone; they have other responsibilities. But the vast majority are very concerned and willing to take on the role of a parent, guidance counselor, nurse, and social worker.”

Before another workshop, this one in the Bronx, a first-year middle school teacher describes a 6th grader who is often absent. The boy takes care of his six younger siblings, she says, because his mother is sick and his father is in jail. The 27-year-old art teacher says she doesn’t know whether anyone at the school has reported his excessive absences to child-welfare officials. “He has to cook and clean, and he’s so tired that he can’t get up to go to school,” she says. “I know he needs to be taken out of that environment so he can get an education, but I worry about him being separated from his family. I would feel so badly if that happened.”

Another teacher tells of a 3rd grader who complained about his back hurting. When she lifted up his shirt, she found cigarette burns up and down his spine. The teacher informed the principal of her elementary school, who called the hot line. “The little boy came up to me a few days later,” she says, “and said that his father said I should mind my own business.” But she says she felt she did the right thing.

Also attending this workshop is the teacher who is afraid to report the 5-year-old spotted eating out of the garbage can. She’s come, she says, to learn how to handle such situations. “I feel a responsibility, up to a certain point,” she says. “I just don’t know what to do.”

The answer, she and the others at the workshops learn, is to pick up the telephone.

Teachers and staff who fail to make that call may find themselves the subject of a probe by Stancik, the investigator charged with fighting corruption and abuse within the New York City schools. But Stancik so far has had mixed results: His investigations have sparked media coverage and some reforms, but only one employee in recent years has been fired.

“The system has been fiercely protective of its image,” says Stancik, who frequently spars with Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew. “They have been very reluctant to remove people who have failed children, which is unfortunate because that perpetuates more failure.”

A major problem in New York, Stancik and others say, is the scarcity of attendance teachers—employees with training in education and social work who monitor student truancy. There are only 215 employees trained to track down and deal with truant students, compared with 575 some 25 years ago.

“When you have 1,100 cases, how do you know which one to work on first?” asks Steven Grossman, union representative for the attendance teachers. “There’s no blinking light that tells you which kid is in dire straits.”

Crushing workloads aside, keeping track of the whereabouts and well-being of students—particularly those from poor, unstable families—is a daunting task in any large school system. Many urban districts have trouble simply reporting the number of students they enroll.

Even so, New York City school officials say that monitoring attendance is a priority. Last fall, the district installed a computer system that automatically generates a special form when a child is absent for 10 consecutive days. Around the same time, child-welfare workers were given access to school attendance records. “We’re getting better at this,” says Fran Goldstein, director of student support services. “But we have a million-plus kids.”

Of course, even school employees who do the right thing when they spot signs of abuse can’t always prevent tragedy. UFT representatives point to the case of 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo. Educators at two schools Elisa attended reported signs of abuse, but the child was left with her mother, who beat her to death in 1995. The killing prompted sweeping changes in city and state child-welfare agencies.

“That’s one of the most disheartening things,” Liss-Turner says. “Children just aren’t being protected.”

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