By: Aaron Muttillo, Ph.D.
Director, Day Treatment Centers
Positive Education Program
An educator’s role will always be multifaceted because of the complex, dynamic nature of a growing child. Most educators now embrace a whole-student approach to teaching, one that places great value on activities that address a child’s social and emotional development. As educators consider all the factors that either impede or facilitate student growth, they are often in a position to protect and heal children from adversity and trauma. Evidence shows that trusting relationships with others has the potential to be protective from future traumatic experiences and in some cases to be reparative. Educators understand the profound impact they can have on a young person; therefore, they have accepted the growing responsibilities that have been thrust upon them. What is becoming increasingly more evident during the COVID-19 crisis is that the educator’s role is ever-expanding because they are the default professional assigned to address long-standing issues. Simply put: this pandemic has exposed an over-reliance on educators to identify and respond to the effects of past unjust policies.
Simply put: this pandemic has exposed an over-reliance on educators to identify and respond to the effects of past unjust policies.
The current crisis elucidates some of the most perplexing policy workarounds that exist in American society. As a parent and education administrator, I have spent considerable time reflecting on the unreasonable expectations that are placed on educators, particularly during times of crisis. Following Governor DeWine’s decision to close schools, one of the first considerations from caring citizens and policy makers alike was, How will kids eat without the free breakfast and lunch program? People largely assumed that nutrition, one of the most basic needs of a growing child, somehow remained the responsibility of the education system. The root cause of widespread child hunger was not even discussed, because society widely accepts that this issue can be addressed downstream by schools.
In addition to teaching and feeding children, educators are also asked to address their students’ lack of basic resources, such as books, paper, writing utensils, internet connectivity, and technology devices. The dearth of access to these essential tools has become more evident during the stay-at-home order. Although these resources are vitally important for learning, they are not related to the safety and well-being of the child. Undoubtedly, the most critical role of the American educator is to protect children from harm.
Undoubtedly, the most critical role of the American educator is to protect children from harm.
In response to the need for child advocacy, Congress passed the Child Abuse and Treatment Act in 1974. This law mandated that school personnel and other professionals report child abuse. All state legislatures have incorporated laws requiring the reporting of abuse and neglect. The Ohio Revised Code 3319.073 outlines requirements for school personnel to participate in child abuse prevention and intervention programs. Currently, educators must complete at least four hours of training within two years of hire and repeat training again every five years thereafter. These mandates have proven to be a reliable safeguard for children. The Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4) showed that public schools report more cases of child abuse and neglect than any other institution (52%). The most common reporters of suspected abuse were education personnel (16.4%), followed by legal and law enforcement personnel (16.7%), social services staff (11.5%), and medical personnel (8.2%), respectively. Overall, professionals have submitted more than one-half of all reports for the past five years, and that percentage has increased slightly each year since 2006. As we are coming to realize, during a stay-at-home order in which children and adolescents have minimal interactions with professionals, established safety nets now have large holes.
Without the daily oversight of caring professionals, such as educators, children are at greater risk for harm. When schools are in session, the data on child abuse and neglect in the home is alarming. With that in mind, the stay-at-home order paints a dark picture: many children will face difficulties that will endure beyond this current crisis. According to the Center for Disease and Control, one in four children experience some form of abuse or neglect in their lifetime. The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) reported that the victim rate of confirmed abuse and neglect was 9.2 per 1,000 children.
For children who reside in disadvantaged neighborhoods, their risks for future dysfunction is likely exponentially greater without schools to buffer the stressors.
For children who reside in disadvantaged neighborhoods (high mobility, unemployment, low-income neighbors), their risks for future dysfunction is likely exponentially greater without schools to buffer the stressors. Studies have shown that children living in disadvantaged neighborhoods produce lower reading and math achievement scores and higher dropout rates. Furthermore, researchers have found that exposure to community violence is negatively correlated with IQ scores and standardized reading performance.
I would be negligent to not cite the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study when discussing the possible long-term consequences to children when they face an increased risk of harm. This seminal study found that individuals who endured four or more adverse experiences as a child had 4- to 12-fold increased health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempts. The ACE study provides compelling evidence that individuals who are exposed to adverse experiences as children are negatively impacted in real, measurable ways.
My fear is that not only will children be placed at a greater risk for harm when not attending school but that the discovery of abusive and neglectful situations will also be delayed. Adults who committed to the education profession are not able to activate their full repertoire of roles (social worker, psychologist, police officer/detective). To me, now seems like a good time to consider why 25 percent of school-aged children experience abuse and neglect in our country in the first place.
Now seems like a good time to consider why 25 percent of school-aged children experience abuse and neglect in our country in the first place.
The Chinese word for crisis is the combination of the characters danger and opportunity. The COVID-19 crisis has caused great danger for vulnerable children, igniting the need for policy makers to move from handwringing to action. Simply put: this pandemic has exposed an over-reliance on educators to identify and respond to the effects of past unjust policies. Red-lining, draconian sentencing for drug offenses, and minimum wage standards that keep families impoverished are just some of the policies that lead to child maltreatment. These policies disproportionately impact communities of color. Perhaps, during these times of deep reflection, we can move the policy discussion upstream and right size the expectations placed on educators so they can maximize their impact on growing the bodies and minds of our youngest citizens.
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