For Teachers, Reporting Abuse Is a Tough Call

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Something was wrong with the 5-year-old in the kindergarten class.

He came to school sporadically, and the absences seemed to follow conversations his teacher had with the boy's mother about his occasional misbehavior.

When he did show up, he had dirty teeth and ill-fitting pants. He ate out of the garbage can.

The boy's teacher, a 36-year-old in her first year at an elementary school here, was legally required to report these signs of possible abuse or neglect to the state hot line. But, she said last month, she had done little besides informing a guidance counselor. She wasn't sure whether the counselor made a report.

"I'm afraid to call," said the teacher. "Besides, he always comes back to school after two or three days."

Her reluctance reflects the myriad of difficulties that come from relying on school employees to detect child abuse that occurs at home. The problems have become starkly visible here in the nation's largest school system, which has been blamed for failing to prevent the fatal abuse of several children in recent years.

The tragic deaths raise questions about the ability of the school system to keep track of its 1.1 million students and to train thousands of employees to report any signs of abuse to a state hot line that triggers investigations by child-welfare officials.

"The fault lies principally with whoever is abusing the child, but we have to face the fact that the schools are in a position to try to stop it," Edward F. Stancik, the city's independent investigator for its public schools, said in a recent interview. "You hate to think that the school system has gotten so bad that we can't focus on this problem."

But such problems are by no means limited to New York, and teachers elsewhere face similar confusion and uncertainty. Though reporting requirements may vary slightly, all 50 states have laws that require teachers to notify authorities if they suspect a child is in danger.

"Child abuse does not respect geography, ethnicity, or race," said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. "It can happen anywhere."

Mr. Stephens said school campuses that provide a safe and comfortable environment for children, free from gang violence and drugs, may make children more likely to disclose problems at home.

"Next to parents, teachers spend more time with students" than do any other adults, he said. "In many ways, they are the first line of defense."

One Girl's Legacy

Esther Liss-Turner stood in front of two dozen teachers in a meeting room last month in Brooklyn, and asked them a question: "How many of you remember Lisa Steinberg?"

The murder of the frail 6-year-old girl, who was beaten to death by her mother's husband in 1987, spurred school officials to step up their efforts at child-abuse prevention. A school board report concluded that educators should have reported Lisa's obvious injuries before her death but that they lacked any training in handling such situations.

So, the state began requiring school staff members to attend a two-hour workshop on child abuse to receive certification. Schools are also supposed to hold an annual workshop on the topic and appoint some employees to serve as a prevention team.

"Unfortunately, Lisa had to die for a law to go into effect," Ms. Liss-Turner said at the Brooklyn workshop. The session was sponsored by the local teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers, which offers the free sessions at its offices throughout the city.

Over the distant rumbling of the subway, Ms. Liss-Turner asked the 24 teachers to describe signs of possible physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect.

Black eyes. Welts. Hair pulled out at the roots. Depression. Promiscuity. Truancy. Inappropriate clothing. The list went on.

Ms. Liss-Turner, a special education teacher who leads the workshops part-time, stressed that any signs of possible mistreatment must be reported to the principal, who is responsible for calling the state hot line. But if the principal fails to make the call, the burden falls on the teacher.

"God forbid anything happened to the child and it became a court case--you can be held liable," Ms. Liss-Turner warned. "If you're going to make a mistake, err on the side of the child."

After the discussion, she fielded a slew of questions from the teachers:

  • Can I be sued by a parent? Yes, but the law protects teachers who unknowingly make false reports.
  • Should I question the child? No.
  • Should I call the parents if I suspect abuse? No.

"These days, schools have so many of the responsibilities that parents should have," observed biology teacher Elizabeth Hayes, sitting in the back row. "We feed the children. We make sure they go to school. Parents aren't doing their job, so teachers have to follow up."

Facing Reality

But talking about child-abuse prevention in a union office and implementing it at school are two different things.

"People have told me that they've tried to call the hot line, and the phone just rings and rings," Ms. Liss-Turner said. "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."

At another workshop in the Bronx, a first-year middle school teacher who declined to give her name described a 6th grader who is often absent. The boy takes care of his six younger siblings, she said, because his mother is sick and his father is in jail.

The 27-year-old art teacher said she did not know whether anyone at the school had 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 said. "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, Kathlyn Smith, told the story of a 3rd grader who complained about his back hurting.

There were cigarette burns up and down his spine. Ms. Smith informed the principal of the elementary school, where she no longer works, and he called the hot line.

"The little boy came up to me a few days later and said his father said I should mind my own business," Ms. Smith recalled. But she said she felt she had done the right thing anyway.

The teacher who was afraid to file a neglect report on the 5-year-old, said before the workshop began that she was eager to learn how to handle the situation. "I feel a responsibility, up to a certain point," she said. "I just don't know what to do."

The answer, teachers learn at the workshops, is to pick up the telephone.

Too Few Monitors

Failing to intervene has gotten several school officials in trouble with Mr. Stancik, a high-profile former trial lawyer whose expos‚s of school board corruption and sexual abuse of students have yielded scores of criminal convictions. His examinations of cases in which students have been abused at home have sparked widespread media attention here and some reforms, but few dismissals of school employees.

"The system has been fiercely protective of its image," said Mr. Stancik, who has sparred repeatedly with Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew. "They have been very reluctant to remove people who have failed children, which is unfortunate, because that perpetuates more failure."

A major problem, Mr. Stancik and others say, is the scarcity of attendance teachers--employees with training in education and social work who monitor truancy. There are only 215 employees trained to track down and deal with truant students, compared with about 575 in the early 1970s.

"When you have 1,100 cases, how do you know which one to work on first?" asked Steven Grossman, the attendance teachers' UFT representative. "There's no blinking light that tells you which kid is in dire straits."

Tragedy Unavoidable

Aside from the crushing workloads, 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. Mr. Grossman also argues that supervision of the attendance teachers is inadequate and that policies are inconsistent from school to school.

But New York City school officials insist that monitoring attendance is a priority. Last fall, they 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, but we have a million-plus kids," said Fran Goldstein, the school system's executive director of support services.

And even when schools fulfill their responsibilities, tragedies occur, said Joseph Colletti, the UFT's representative for educational programs. He said that two schools attended by Elisa Izquierdo reported signs of abuse, but the 6-year-old was beaten to death by her mother in 1995. Her death prompted sweeping changes in city and state child-welfare agencies.

"That's one of the most disheartening things," Ms. Liss-Turner said. "Children just aren't being protected."

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