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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Child Abuse In Our School Community

By Peter DeWitt — October 12, 2011 5 min read
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We have a population of students who can’t wait to get to school every day. They wish our days were longer, watch the clock tick every minute, and do not want to go home. It’s not that they love reading, math, science or social studies so much that they want to stay in our schools long into the night. They don’t want to go home because they are being abused. Child abuse can be both physical and emotional and those children being abused sit in our schools and fear going home.

It doesn’t matter whether we teach in an urban, rural or suburban setting we have children who are being abused. Some of them wear it on their faces because they are sad or broken when they enter our classroom doors. Others walk in with bruises from their battles. Unfortunately, there are many who go unnoticed because they do not have visible bruises, and do not speak up about their abuse because they are afraid.

During our pre-service days we listened as professors lectured about the diverse needs of our students. We planned differentiated lessons for students of differing academic abilities but nothing in our pre-service experiences prepared us for dealing with children who come from abusive households.

How do we prepare ourselves to work with abused children? How do we find a balance between educating these students and not lashing out at their parents? How do we trust that the the cycle will stop at home when we have very little power to stop it?

Our job as educators is to teach and love our students. Meeting them at the classroom door to say good morning is easy because we get to protect them all day. Putting them on the bus in the afternoon is the difficult part, especially when our accusations go unfounded even though we know they may be true and the abuser may be waiting for them at home.

There are many difficulties that come with working with abused children. The most difficult part is trying to maintain some sort of normalcy with the child. Although it is an educator’s job to keep them safe, it is also their job to educate them so some day they can leave the abusive environment. In addition, teachers often fear contacting an abusive parent about an issue at school because they worry that the child will be abused again at home.

Statistics of Abuse

  • The statistics on abuse are staggering. The biggest misconception is the idea that children from low-income homes are the only ones abused. Abusive homes can be found in every city or town and at every income level.
  • A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds
  • More than five children die every day as a result of child abuse.
  • Approximately 80% of children that die from abuse are under the age of 4.
  • It is estimated that between 50-60% of child fatalities due to maltreatment are not recorded as such on death certificates.
  • More than 90% of juvenile sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator in some way.
  • Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education.
  • About 30% of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children, continuing the horrible cycle of abuse.
  • About 80% of 21 year olds that were abused as children met criteria for at least one psychological disorder.
  • The estimated annual cost of child abuse and neglect in the United States for 2007 is $104 billion (www.childhelp.org).

Warning Signs of Abuse
There are numerous warning signs associated with abuse. However, what makes it difficult to judge is that not all children who have these warning signs are being abused, and some children being abused do not have some of these warning signs. Abuse needs to be investigated and as mandated reporters, it is an educator’s job to report abusive situations. The following are some possible warning signs of abuse:

  • Withdrawn or fearful
  • Shows extremes in behavior (extremely compliant or extremely demanding; extremely passive or extremely aggressive).
  • Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts, or cuts.
  • Shies away from touch, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home.
  • Wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days.
  • Is often tardy or absent from school.
  • Has knowledge about inappropriate facts beyond their maturity.
  • Doesn’t want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities (www.helpguide.org).

School systems need to streamline their reporting system, which means they need to have at least one staff member, such as a school counselor or psychologist, report the allegation of abuse to Child Protective Services (CPS). In addition, it’s important for schools school systems to have a safety protocol to deal with an angry parent who may approach the school after CPS is called.

The following are some tips for schools:

  • Create a group (school psychologist, social worker, principal, school nurse, etc.) that meets to discuss the situation before CPS is contacted. The group can make sure that all information is collected before contacting CPS.
  • Have one person who can contact CPS or be in the room for support when CPS is contacted if the teacher has to call directly. Many adults do not have a great deal of experiencing contacting CPS, so having another adult available is comforting.
  • Make sure the child does not meet with CPS alone. They need a friendly face in the room.
  • Take creative measures to minimize the impact on the child when CPS makes the school visit. Call down to the classroom and have the child meet you in the nurse’s office or some common ground within the school.
  • As much as it is important for the child to have a safe adult in school, make sure the adult who found out about the abusive situation has someone to talk to as well. Child abuse is traumatic for the teacher who has the student in their classroom.
  • Bottom line: Have a plan

In addition, there has often been frustration between the school and CPS because reports come back unfounded when educators know that there is abuse in the home. CPS workers often have a large caseload of children and see abuse at a much higher rate than educators. Although there are reasons for frustration, it’s important to always call CPS when there is suspected cases of abuse.

Child abuse should never happen. No child deserves to live in an abusive home, especially since they have a greater chance of growing up and continuing the cycle of abuse. To many children, an abusive home is their reality. As educators, we need to remain vigilant and report cases when we know they are happening. We also need to understand that emotional support is key for these students and academic learning is secondary. Students are not available for learning when they are living in fear/abusive homes.

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National Child Abuse Hotline is 1-800-4-A-Child


Child Help - http://www.childhelp.org/pages/statistics American Humane Association - http://www.americanhumane.org Help Guide - http://helpguide.org

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.