Crisis in Education: False Allegations of Child Abuse
Crisis in education. Those are words that are heard frequently, and education is facing a crisis. It is a crisis that is not discussed. A crisis about which very little has been written. A crisis that many hope will go away if ignored. It is a crisis that is very real. The crisis is false allegations of child abuse against teachers and other school employees.
Those involved in working with children in the educational setting have genuine concerns relating to child abuse. They must deal with the total child. When the child arrives at school he frequently brings additional baggage with him that affects all school employees. Examples of such baggage are neglect, mental abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and abuse by the child protective system. Therefore the laws designed to protect the child and provide him with the safest possible environment of necessity directly impact the educator.
Unfortunately, educators have been caught up in the system. Laws have mandated them to be reporters. Teachers, along with other mandated reporters, have been threatened and intimidated with prosecution for failure to report. Confusion abounds especially about the definition of abuse. If educators are to continue, by law, to be mandated reporters, then they must be provided with a more precise definition of child abuse.
School employees realize how vulnerable they are to being victims of false allegations by an unhappy student or parent. Even when the report of suspected abuse is labeled as unfounded they find their names have been entered into state registries. Teachers face hearings conducted by the state licensing boards and local school board. Those hearings are in addition to the child protective service, criminal, and possible civil hearings that occur when there has been an accusation of child abuse. As a result, many teachers have chosen to remove the nurturing touch in the classroom.
Too many times the statement has been made, “If we must err, let us err on the side of the child.” The present system is not erring on the side of the child. What happens to the lives of those individuals who have suffered as a result of these errors? Those teachers who have left the profession even after being cleared of all charges? The other teachers who have withdrawn from their students so that they will not suffer a similar fate? The guidance counselor or school nurse who is hesitant to see a child alone for fear of being falsely accused? The assistant superintendent of schools who committed suicide two days after a student recanted her story, but no one told him? The bus driver who spent three months in jail, suffered every imaginable indignity and a massive heart attack, later to be cleared? The school custodian who had charges dropped the day before trial by five girls who admitted they lied because he had reported them for vandalizing the rest room?
Those responsible for enacting laws need to look at the laws they have enacted, many of which were done hastily without proper research. They need to involve the people who work directly with children in restructuring the laws. If this is done, there could be an outstanding system that works for what is best for the child — a system that provides safety, a system that that provides stability and emotional support, and a system that will benefit the child, the family, the educational system, and the nation.
· A clear definition of child neglect and abuse. A clear definition will decrease confusion for mandated reporters, caseworkers, and parents. The present definitions are much too vague.
· An end to anonymous reporting. Malicious use of anonymous reporting is growing. Those in the educational community see this as an ever growing threat to their professional careers. The reporter is protected from liability if the report is made in good faith.
· Screening of reports. Through proper training, 50% of more of all calls could be screened out.
· Thorough investigations. Complete and thorough investigations should be done and those doing the investigating need to be properly trained and the agencies responsible for investigation of child abuse should be held accountable.
· Due process. Everyone accused of child abuse should be entitled to due process. This is being denied to many individuals by the present method.
· A purified child abuse registry. Unfounded and Indicated charges should not appear in a registry.
By working together with the many organizations having similar concerns, educators can educate their colleagues and others regarding the changes that need to happen — changes that will ensure everyone receives due process and that children are provided a safe atmosphere in which to learn.
A safe environment for the child is a must but it has to be accomplished without sacrificing the rights of innocent individuals. This great country was founded upon the principle of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Everyone must work together to guarantee this right to those falsely accused of child abuse.
* Jane Maxson is a fifth grade teacher and the vice-president for teachers of the United School Employees of Pasco and can be contacted at 34710 Highway 54, Zephyrhills, FL 33541. [Back]