Classroom teachers are now being asked to play a key role in detecting and reporting child abuse
Albany, N.Y. — Teachers have always been asked to do more than teach. Helping young children get on and off the school bus, meeting with parents, or counseling a child about personal problems are all part of the day for elementary school teachers. Chaperoning dances, giving advice about which courses to take to prepare for college, about dating, and about the pros and cons of working after school are routine nonacademic duties for high school teachers.
And now, as a nationwide move to confront the increase in physical and sexual child abuse gains momentum, teachers find themselves with two extremely sensitive nonacademic roles. First, they are expected to serve as whistle-blowers in the detection and prevention of child abuse. Second, they function as caring adults with a front-line part to play in the restoration of a child's trust in the adult world after abuse.
''Schools are continually asked to do too much in too many areas, but this is not the case in child abuse,'' says Samuel Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). ''Teachers are in the position to have the best opportunity to see any kind of change (in children). Teachers want to help. Where children deal with teachers over a period of time, children can feel comfortable with teachers in a way they never could with other adults.''
But by and large, teachers, like most other adults, are not naturally prepared to deal with instances of child abuse. ''Our teachers and administrators are not trained enough to present a program, to provide understanding on how to work with such children,'' Mr. Sava says.
Many schools are hurriedly trying to carry out such programs in as nonthreatening a way as possible. In addition to sponsoring programs that help educators identify child abuse, schools have begun to teach children how to recognize abusers, how to prevent abuse, and how to tell a parent or trusted adult if they have been the victims of abuse -- ''a hard but necessary lesson to teach,'' according to the New York State commissioner of education, Gordon Ambach.
''What I see happening,'' says Jim Mathiott, principal of the Ohlone Elementary School in Palo Alto, Calif., ''is (that) the schools are becoming more aware of the need to help children protect themselves and know how to respond in a threatening situation, much the same way that fire drills are held so that children will know how to respond in the event they are in a fire.''
The National Education Association has developed a series of print, audiovisual, and audiotape materials on child abuse for use in training workshops for in-service teachers. The National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse (PO Box 2866, Chicago, Ill. 60690) puts out a $3 booklet intended to help teachers and others reliably identify cases of child abuse or neglect.
But beyond all of the formal efforts, teachers must still be clear on how they view child victims, says Jay Somers, national teacher of the year for 1981- 82. ''What we are really dealing with is the abuse of power by the strong over the weak,'' he says. ''It is just so much more abhorrent when done to a child.''
Born into the only Jewish family in a small town in eastern Czechoslovakia, Mr. Somers experienced 1 1/2 years of sustained physical and mental abuse as a youth in a Nazi slave labor camp. Ten days before he was shipped to Auschwitz and probable death, he escaped and was liberated by Allied forces.
''As a child I was not afforded proper rights - in the most extreme ways,'' he says. ''Everything that happens in life leaves an impression, but with proper circumstances people can mitigate these memories and pains. . . . (Memories) become a backdrop to history, not an active part in my daily life. I discovered that not all men are SS men, that a country like America exists where I could practice my religion openly.''
Somers draws an analogy for teachers which he thinks can help them play a constructive role in dealing with a child who has been abused. Good teachers know ''more than anyone else (how important it is) to forgive and forget a student who may have misbehaved in their class,'' he says. A student always deserves a real chance to start over. Teachers must apply this when they deal with children who have been abused -- not looking at them in some way that says ''they are victims who cannot transcend their victimization. The human being is so extraordinary, he can recover from life's punishment,'' Somers adds.
Nevertheless, teacher involvement in the prevention of child abuse is a double-edged sword. ''Reporting child abuse is a terribly delicate subject,'' says Scott D. Thomson of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. ''Teachers, especially young ones, can look meddlesome and naive - especially if a child is getting tough but not unreasonable discipline at home. Public opinion and the courts have always sided with parents.''
But the erosion of family strength and values, the tendencies of adults toward letting kids raise themselves and of teen-agers toward turning to a rock-music or drug culture, have made the problems of child abuse and sexual abuse greater today, Mr. Thomson says.
All 50 states have legislation that requires teachers to report instances of suspected child abuse. In 32 states, educators who fail to report such cases are subject to criminal prosecution.
Mr. Sava says there is a need to pass laws that would protect teachers from suits if they report suspected child abuse in good faith but turn out to be wrong.
Schools should always help children develop a positive self-image and not just judge them by tests, educators say. ''And schools should naturally do this specifically and sensitively for children who (they know) have been abused,'' adds Sava. This as an extension of the role schools play to help all children stand on their own feet.