Why we all need to know more about child abuse

On Board Online • November 29, 2021

By Richard Keller-Coffey

When I look back on my 30-year teaching career, I think of the thousands of students I taught. Since beginning work at a Dutchess County agency established to fight child abuse, though, three in particular keep coming to mind.

Mary was a student who was always tired in class. She stopped showing interest in class activities and interacting with other students, even her friends. Then she stopped washing herself. At the time, these behaviors did not indicate to me that a family member was molesting her at home. It's very clear to me now.

Jerold always wore long sleeve shirts, even when it was hot. He insisted on sitting in the back of the classroom, or on the side of the room, with his back to the wall. On the days that I stayed at school late, I always saw Jerold. He would be attending a club meeting, helping a teacher put up classroom displays or just hanging around with some other kids. At the time, I did not put those pieces together to suspect that Jerold was being physically abused. Actually, he was afraid to go home.

Then there is Christopher, who often asked for money to buy food and who wore clothes that were too big and not particularly clean. I figured that his family was poor, and I mentioned this to his guidance counselor. What I didn't know was that because his mother had severe mental health problems, she would deny Christopher food and proper clothing and often forced him to sleep on the garage floor as a "punishment" for trivial transgressions.

In telling these stories, I don't want people to think that I was completely oblivious to the needs of my students, or that my school's community had an inordinate amount of child abuse. Like all teachers, I earnestly cared for my students and was concerned about their welfare. I called the child abuse hotline when I recognized it was necessary, but I was not aware of all the signs. There are a lot of subtle clues, such as the ones described above, that indicate child abuse. Many are easy to miss or rationalize. I, like all teachers, paid attention for the signs I knew. Now, in my current position as a community educator, I am painfully aware of what I didn't know.

There are clear indicators to know as well, such as a newly established distress hand signal that people can use to indicate that they are at risk of abuse. A 16-year-old girl recently used it to indicate that she was being held captive by a 61-year-old man, which led to his arrest.

My point is that it is crucial that everyone in public education attend periodic refresher trainings to stay knowledgeable about preventing child abuse. Because abuse occurs within every social, religious, racial, ethnic and socio-economic group, and in every type of geographic area (urban, rural, suburban), all school districts need to keep watch over their students. Statistics on the prevalence of abuse and neglect suggest that every educator encounters children who are being abused . every single one!

One might assume that all educators know how to spot child abuse. After all, anyone in New York State who seeks certification to become a teacher, a teacher's aide or an assistant teacher learns that they are a "mandated reporter" and must complete a training in child abuse prevention and reporting.

However, this training is required only once, and it must be taken before being certified to work in a classroom. This is not adequate to protect children. Over time, the effectiveness of this training fades. It is possible that an educator could work with children for decades but, despite the best of intentions, miss signs that could be indicators of abuse.

Imagine if your school board and other school boards throughout the state voluntarily decided to offer periodic child abuse refresher trainings - once a year, once every three years or even once every five years. Thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of children could be saved.

NYSSBA has created optional language for Policy 5460 - Child Abuse, Maltreatment or Neglect in a Domestic Setting. The optional language says that the board requires quality refresher trainings for all educators in the district after a selected number of years, so that children are better protected.

Your district would decide who should provide such training. Some providers require a fee, but many do not. Across the state, potential trainers could come from police agencies, child advocacy centers, Child Protective Services, social service agencies, and private non-profits like mine, the Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse in Poughkeepsie. Trainings can be provided either in person or online.

No matter how a district decides to provide refresher trainings, it's vital that they happen. If, when I was teaching, there were regular refreshers about the indicators of abuse, I would have been better able to help my students . especially Mary, Jerold and Christopher. I think about them a lot.

Richard Keller-Coffey, a former teacher in the Poughkeepsie City School District, works for Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse in Poughkeepsie as community education facilitator. He is also a member of the Webutuck school board and the Dutchess County BOCES board.

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