School staffs learning about abuse Act on suspicions, trainees told

August 18, 1993|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writer

Following a report condemning the Anne Arundel school system's handling of child abuse cases, Maryland's school superintendent expressed amazement that many teachers interviewed did not recognize signs of abuse or realize it is their responsibility to report it.

Yesterday, the county schools took the first step toward changing that.

During two half-hour seminars at the Carver Staff Development Center in Crofton, 262 new teachers and more than 700 custodians became the first school employees to receive new handouts listing steps to follow if they suspect a student has been abused.

By Oct. 30, all of the school system's 7,000 employees and 13,000 volunteers must be trained to recognize and report abuse immediately, said Movita Pickens, coordinator of guidance counseling for the county schools.

"You do not need absolute proof to report child abuse," said Ms. Pickens. "We stress that the law says you should report if you have 'reason to suspect.' "

In presentations to veteran teachers, she said, the most commonly asked question is, "I know of cases where things have been reported and no one's done anything. What happens when a case is reported?"

Ms. Pickens said the school system receives a letter saying whether the Department of Social Services has taken a case. "But I've told them if they're dissatisfied with the action, they should take it to a DSS supervisor," Ms. Pickens said.

Another perennial question, she said, concerns whether a child who is believed to have been abused will be taken from his or her home.

"Generally, they don't leave at all, because DSS wants to work with the family," Ms. Pickens said.

County school employees' handling of child abuse complaints came under fire last month when a team of state investigators found a "pattern of negligence" in reporting at Northeast High School in Pasadena.

The investigation was ordered by Nancy S. Grasmick, the state school superintendent, who was concerned about how a former Northeast teacher who has admitted having sex with students over a 10-year period could have done so undetected.

Despite many rumors and complaints, no action was taken against Ronald Walter Price until a 16-year-old girl stepped forward this spring to say she was having a sexual relationship with him.

Among the signs of possible child sexual abuse school employees are being told to look for are: unusual sexual behavior or knowledge; isolation from peers; repeated attempts to run away; pregnancy; and difficulty in sitting or walking.

When school employees or volunteers suspect child abuse, they must report it to the county Department of Social Services, even if it involves allegations against a school employee, according to the new pamphlet.

The school principal, or someone designated by the principal, should be the next to know a report has been filed, the pamphlet says.

Finally, the person reporting the suspected abuse must file a written report with the Department of Social Services within 48 hours, the pamphlet says.

State investigators have found that in many cases, no written reports were filed after allegations were reported to Social Services. The state investigation also faulted the school system because teachers interviewed said they thought suspected child abuse should be reported only to the principal or guidance counselor.

Several teachers also said they did not view a sexual relationship between a teacher and an older student as something that had to be reported as child abuse.

"The law says if the alleged victim is under 18, you must report it," Ms. Pickens said.

The new pamphlet reminds school employees that their identities will be kept secret if they report child abuse, and that they cannot be held civilly or criminally liable if the abuse cannot be proved or if an allegation reported by an employee turns out to be false.

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