By Joyce R. Lombardi
While abuse, sexting, and predatory teachers aren’t great dinnertime topics, they are all, unfortunately, part of many kids’ back-to-school experience. Whether your kids know it or not, they are likely to know at least one child who is being (or will be) abused at home or at school.
One way to broach the topic is to ask your child to find out what their school is doing about child abuse. The Maryland General Assembly has passed a number of child abuse bills in recent years, and it’s possible that your child’s school might not be up to speed yet. If they are, great. If not, your child’s questions can help them. We are all in this together.
These questions work best coming from kids in middle and high school, but you can ask the school yourself if you want. The answer key is included.
Q: What kind of child abuse education do kids get in school?
A: After Erin’s Law went into effect in July 2016, public and certain nonpublic schools must teach kids K-12 about “the awareness and prevention of sexual abuse and assault.” Jurisdictions were free to shape their own curriculums, and many have incorporated lessons on inappropriate/appropriate touch, not keeping secrets, and telling adults.
As of July 1, 2018, each county’s public school family life and human sexuality curriculum must include age-appropriate education on the meaning of “consent” and personal boundaries. It’s a new law, but ask your kids to find out if your school is doing anything yet.
Q: What kind of child abuse education do teachers and staff (i.e. adults) get?
A: Truly, only adults can prevent and stop child abuse. The Child Abuse Prevention Bill, which also went into effect July 1, 2018, requires that school personnel in public and certain nonpublic schools receive annual training on the prevention, identification and reporting of child sexual abuse. (Note: This does not include neglect or physical abuse; despite attempts by BCAC, there is no mandatory statewide training requirement for identifying and reporting those kinds of abuse.)
The new law requires that school personnel are trained in preventing child sex abuse, including how to recognize and address grooming behavior, and how to identify and report suspected abuse. The law also requires schools to create codes of conduct to address and prevent abuse, and to make sure their physical spaces do not encourage abuse.
Q: Do teachers or coaches or school staff have to report child abuse?
A: Yes. For decades, school personnel (and others, such as health professionals and law enforcement) have been mandatory reporters in the State of Maryland, meaning they must report if they have “reason to believe” child abuse or neglect has occurred, no matter how far back it was, or even if they only have a suspicion. Child abuse in Maryland means physical or sexual abuse, as well as child exploitation (e.g., photographs) and human trafficking. Since 2017, Maryland’s “child abuse” definition includes not just parents and household members, but anyone with authority or temporary care and custody over a child, including school personnel, coaches, and teachers.
Q: To whom does a teacher/school have to report child abuse?
A: This is not new, but teachers and principals often do not know that the law (Maryland Code, Family Law §5-704) requires the person who has the suspicion of abuse to report OUT to the Department of Social Services or police and UP to a principal or supervisor. Often, a staff member just reports up. This creates a problem, because, far too often, the principal or other authority figure tries to handle the abuse on her own, rather than alert the authorities. Your child can find out if their teachers and counselors know they must report out, as well as up.
Q: Are there signs posted in your school for the child abuse hotline?
A: This is an easy one—no talking required. As of July 1, 2018, schools are encouraged (but not required) to post the telephone number of the local department of social services to report suspected child abuse or neglect. (Note: Every county has its own reporting number, but that will change in a couple of years.) Once the statewide child abuse number is released, schools can post that instead.
Q: What does the school do if someone at the school spreads sexual pictures of your child (e.g. sexting, revenge porn) or sends them lewd photos?
A: Several things. As of 2017, an adult in authority who solicits or sends lewd/inappropriate pictures with children must be reported to police or social services under the mandatory reporter law. Students who engage in unwanted sexting or sharing sexual images with each other might fall under the state’s brand new cyber-bullying law. Starting October 1, 2018, Maryland’s definition of cyberbullying now includes intentional electronic sharing of sexual images and content that creates a hostile educational environment. The bill also requires that public (and some private) schools’ model procedures on handling bullying include notice to victims and their families.
Joyce Lombardi, Esq. is BCAC’s Director of Government Relations and Legal Services. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and she welcomes questions and comments about how child abuse laws are being used in Maryland.