By Stephanie Filio
It is 3:55, and the release bell rings at 4:00. Everyone is happy, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and the counselor’s office has been quiet for about 15 minutes. The end of the day always offers inspiration for students to push through sitting in class without needing to vent, avoid trouble, or get reminded to stay on task. You stand in the hallway as everyone leaves and walk your students to the bus loop. The buses pull away and you feel the relief of a day without incident. Now you are able to head home to relax. Can you feel it?
Then it happens. You glance at your phone at a stoplight and see an email from a teacher telling you that a student was very teary today and had a handprint on her arm. The teacher feels this may have come as a result of abuse going on at home. Your mind goes into reporting mode, but your tried-and-true process typically occurs during school with access to the student, other school professionals, and resources. The student is already home, and there is no telling whether she is in imminent danger there. No one can assume whether the mark is a result of abuse or of a harmless incident because the line of direct communication ended when the buses left. So what now?
Besides nonemergency police phone numbers, all cities have hotlines to access social services to report suspected dangerous situations. Any concerned person can (and should) report a concerning incident. But some professionals are not just encouraged to do so; they are legally obligated. Mandated reporting is a requirement by which certain professionals must (by law) report any sign of physical or emotional abuse, neglect, or harm to a person’s self or others. Because of this teacher’s superb rapport with students and years of experience seeing all forms of homes and families, she knew something was not right and suspected that someone had physically hurt the child.
Of course, counseling and administrative staff are the first line of defense for reporting, but anyone can and should report suspicions of harm to students. Teachers are in a tough position in our field because they take building rapport and trust very seriously so that students can feel comfortable in the learning environment. I hear many teachers say, “But what if they find out it was me? They’ll never talk to me about anything again!” I remind them that the agencies you would talk to keep most parties confidential.
One of the most common obstacles to reporting warning signs is the hectic school environment. Counselors and administrators are often running around the school, and teachers have up to 34 other students in their care that they must also serve. This may leave teachers feeling as though they were unable to report the situation immediately, at which point it waits until the next day. The best thing you can do to help other educators feel comfortable is to create an informative environment so that the fear of making the call to emergency services is less scary. Here are some great ideas to implement a mandated reporting campaign at your school.
Professional development should be offered to all staff to ensure that everyone is aware of what warning signs they can look out for with distressed students. There are various levels of warning signs, and education here is key. Once they have more knowledge about what to look for, teachers may feel better about spotting and reporting potential violence in their students’ homes. Here are a few such warning signs.
- self-harm: cuts on arms, long sleeves during warm weather, withdrawal, self-deprecating language, friends reporting concern
- suicidal ideation: verbiage relating to death in a favorable trend, apathy, sudden sullen behavior, friends reporting concern
- abuse at home: marks on the skin, hostile language from parents, reports of tumultuous situations, sudden angry outbursts, overarching sadness, unease about going home
Sharing Phone Calls
Modeling is always a great way to reduce anxiety about situations such as reporting possible abuse. If a concerned teacher has a planning period after making a report, you could always have him listen in on the call to community services. Because the teacher reported the situation to you, confidentiality breaching is not an issue here as long as the call is made in a secure and closed area where others cannot hear it. By watching a counselor handle the call with her professional knowledge, teachers will learn verbiage and types of communication to help them if they need to make the call on their own next time. Show teachers:
- how to maintain confidentiality where necessary
- how to have student information ready
- what details are important for the community services professional to know
Inviting Community In
The more clearly the reporting process is explained to others, the more comfortable educational staff will feel getting involved. Having response services come to the school and give a rundown of what their job entails allows staff to feel more confident calling in a harmful situation. When we report a concern, we are simply handing over a specific series of events to professionals who are trained to better investigate. This does not necessarily mean we are implying abuse each time; rather we are giving pertinent information to an agency that will be able to assess it. In hearing directly from community services, staff can see the many benefits these agencies have to offer students and families. Additionally, having community members partner with schools helps everyone involved, and there are many opportunities for this throughout the year, for example, as:
- part of full-staff meetings at the beginning of the year
- planned trainings with administrative support for professional development points
- part of Career Day
- guest speakers in civics classes
Overall, we want educators to feel supported not only by us counselors, but also by the larger school community. Let’s be real: Teachers know that if there is a slipup professionally, it will be an administrator who will address the issue with them. This can often make educators feel so much pressure that they question their instincts. Though this is a leadership complication that principals are always trying to mend, it is especially important for teachers to know that when it comes to mandated reporting, inaction is the only wrong move. It should be emphasized that even if a teacher has to put in a call to city services, the teacher should still debrief with school counselors and administrators so that these professionals can make a plan of action to support the student while in school. When administrators play an active role with mandated reporting, they reinforce its importance while also showing that all school staff are truly in this together. Here are some ways to do that:
- coordinating and being present for mandated reporting trainings
- holding workshops with counselors and community members to simulate possible scenarios
- creating committees with staff members targeting student supports
- checking up on situations that have been on teacher radars
- providing support for compassion fatigue
While students are in school, they are in our care. We can’t change what happens at home, and we can’t promise that things will get better. What we can do is use all our resources to ensure that students are protected and families have the best possible chance at success. I have seen families strengthen tremendously after I made a mandated reporting call. The intervention helped make the parents more aware of educational assistance in the community that is there to give information, resources, and classes and to reduce socioeconomic stressors in families’ lives.
Our students are in our care, so we are obligated to ensure that they are receiving basic rights and needs for positive growth and development. Calling an agency, such as the city social services, is sometimes seen as a very authoritative and threatening action. However, helping school staff reframe their perceptions of these calls will allow them to better serve their students.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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