by Alana Cole-Faber
As I have shared in a previous post, last year our children reported to us that they had experienced physical and emotional abuse at their school. When our children first reported this to us, we were alarmed and terrified. We had so many questions. What should we do? Whom should we tell? Are we the only ones? What will happen when we report this? Will there be retribution against us or our children?
We are not experts on abuse or child psychology, so we would always recommend consulting an expert when it comes to concerns of abuse and have done so ourselves for the sake of our own children. However, based on our experiences, these are the actions we would suggest to other parents whose children may have experienced abuse at school.
1. Aim for prevention. Talk to your child about what behaviors are not appropriate from teachers and classmates. Tell your child exactly what they should do if they believe a teacher or classmate is behaving inappropriately. Repeat this conversation regularly, and be sure to give your child the opportunity to ask questions.
2. Create an environment in which your child feels secure and knows that he/she can come to you with problems. We made a rule with our children that if they got in trouble at school and were punished at school, we would not punish them at home as long as they told us the truth about what had happened at school. This did not mean we did not care about misbehavior, but rather that we placed more emphasis on honesty and openness in our home. We believe this was the critical thing that made our children feel comfortable talking to us after our son was struck by his teacher.
3. Keep an eye on your child’s behavior. If your child’s behavior or attitude towards school changes suddenly, this could be a sign that your child has had a negative experience. This negative experience might simply have to do with finding school work more challenging, or it might be an indicator that something more serious has taken place. In our children’s case, their attitude toward school changed dramatically almost overnight. They began asking to stay home, whereas before they had always loved going to school and would barely take a moment to hug us goodbye before running off to join their class.
4. Talk to your child about his/her experiences at school. When you talk to your child about school experiences, try to talk to your child alone, without siblings or others present who may distract or otherwise influence your child. It may help your child relax if you talk while doing another activity that he/she enjoys, such as putting together a puzzle or coloring. One of our children was always very comfortable talking about experiences, but our other child felt most comfortable having a stuffed animal tell us what happened. Ask open-ended questions whenever possible and avoid asking leading questions, even if you think you know exactly what happened during the incident in question. Try to remain calm and avoid reacting emotionally to the things your child describes. If your child describes an event that alarms you, calmly ask questions like, “What happened next? What did the teacher say? Who else was there?” Reassure your child that he/she is not in trouble for reporting information to you. In our experience, it took multiple conversations before our children were willing to reveal all of the details of the event.
5. Do your best to help your child identify and understand his/her feelings about the event. Validate any feelings your child may have. You can try saying something like, “You said that behavior made you feel sad. I understand. I think I might feel sad, too, if something like that happened to me.”
6. Consider having your child meet with a therapist. While your school may have a counselor on site, you should consider the fact that your child might feel more comfortable speaking to someone who is not affiliated with the school where the incident took place.
1. Identify a person at the school who can help address the problem. If you believe the event was minor and did not involve a violation of the law or school policy, then you should of course begin by discussing the incident with your child’s teacher. However, if the incident involved misconduct by the teacher, then you will need to report to someone else. In some schools, there may be a head teacher or curriculum director you can report to. In other schools, the correct choice might be the vice principal or principal. In cases of abuse, the answer is more complicated.
In our experience, choosing only to report to a staff supervisor and principal turned out to be insufficient. While things may be different in other school systems, in Prince George’s County, there is a single line of authority with no apparent checks in place. This means that any report of abuse could get stuck in an individual’s office and no one else would be aware that action had not been taken. Knowing what we know now, our recommendations when it comes to concerns of abuse would be to report the incident to multiple offices at one time, such as the principal’s supervisor and your Board of Education representative. Other school systems may have specific offices where you can report abuse.
When you report the abuse, demand that you be permitted to complete a written report with a security officer in addition to reporting orally. Be sure to request a copy of your report for your records. When you write the report, ask which office you should contact to follow up. The answer should be an office outside of the school itself so that you can be sure your report has been passed along to the appropriate office for investigation. In PGCPS, reports of abuse are supposed to be sent to Security Services.
2. Report any suspected abuse to the authorities immediately. Even though educators are mandated reporters, do not assume that anyone within the school system will follow the mandate. Report to your local Child Protective Services office as well as the county police department. Make this report as soon as possible following the event. As a parent, this is a scary step to take. However, it is extremely important that someone outside the school system be made aware of the abuse. You should do this whether it was your child who experienced the abuse or another child. In our experience, the authorities discouraged us from reporting on the abuse of other children. However, you should nonetheless make an attempt to report on behalf of any children who may have been abused. For more information on making a report, see the Maryland Department of Human Resource’s website.
3. Reach out to other parents at the school. Your child may not be the only one who experienced abuse or witnessed misconduct. When we found out what had happened to our children, we felt extremely alone. As time went on and we received no response, we felt increasingly marginalized. However, as we began to reach out to other parents, we found out that there were several others who had similar experiences. While each case is different, I strongly encourage parents whose children have experienced abuse at school to speak up and seek support from others. Dealing with abuse at school is extremely stressful, and you will be glad to have other parents to talk to about your experiences.
4. Speak out. If you have notified the school and the authorities and still believe the issue has not been addressed, consider speaking out publicly via another venue. Speaking at a Board of Education meeting might be a good choice. If you believe the issue is serious and merits outside investigation, speaking to the media may also help bring about change. Though you may be concerned about being accused of defamation, citizens are entitled to speak out about concerns or misconduct by a public person or entity. Speaking out is part of the system that helps to hold public organizations and officials accountable. In particular, a parent speaking out about abuse or misconduct within his or her child’s school has the right to do so. For more on defamation law, see “Defamation Made Simple” by NOLO.
There are numerous places online to look for resources and help if your child has been the victim of abuse at school or elsewhere. Here are just a few:
The Family Tree: https://www.familytreemd.org
The Family Tree is Maryland’s leading non-profit organization dedicated to improving our community by providing families with proven solutions to prevent child abuse and neglect. A national affiliate of Parents Anonymous®, Prevent Child Abuse America, and The National Exchange Club Foundation, The Family Tree offers volunteer-supported programs and services that aide and educate individuals, families, and communities.
Maryland Children’s Alliance: http://www.marylandchildrensalliance.org
The Maryland Children’s Alliance is a non-profit organization created to better serve abused and neglected children by giving them a voice and by encouraging healing. Our goal is to support jurisdictions that are seeking to develop interdisciplinary teams and establish new Child Advocacy Centers while also enhancing the services available at existing Centers.
Child Welfare Information Gateway: https://www.childwelfare.gov
Child Welfare Information Gateway promotes the safety, permanency, and well-being of children, youth, and families by connecting child welfare, adoption, and related professionals as well as the public to information, resources, and tools covering topics on child welfare, child abuse and neglect, out-of-home care, adoption, and more.A service of the Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, we provide access to print and electronic publications, websites, databases, and online learning tools for improving child welfare practice, including resources that can be shared with families.
Though we have shared many suggestions above, we believe the most important thing parents can do is to speak out on their children’s behalf. You are the best possible advocate for your child. If there are parents out there who need additional help or want to connect with families like ours, you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.