In 2013, approximately 679,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect, and in 2014, more than 1,500 children died because of injuries related to abuse and neglect (Children’s Bureau, 2016). Federal law defines child abuse and neglect as, “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm” (see CAPTA, 2003). Although this federal law sets a minimum standard, each state then provides its own definitions of abuse and neglect and procedures for reporting. State laws generally provide greater definition than the federal law, and they often elaborate on the different forms of child abuse.

Reporting Abuse

Principals are in a position to help prevent abuse and neglect and, as a result, are considered mandatory reporters. As mandatory reporters, they are responsible for reporting not only suspected abuse that has occurred at home, but also abuse that may have occurred in school. Several current events related to child abuse have brought national attention to issues surrounding reporting abuse. For example, a school district in Nebraska recently settled a lawsuit with the local teachers’ union because the principal told two teachers to contact parents before reporting suspected child abuse.

In this case, a student allegedly arrived at school with a scratched face and dried feces on his hands and wrists. A teacher and counselor (“the teachers”) made a report, and the student’s father became angry with the school. The principal then explained to the teachers that parents should be contacted first if the child is not in immediate danger. The teachers told the principal that they were following state law and school policy, but the teachers were allegedly accused of insubordination. In the settlement agreement, it was noted that the teachers complied with school district policy (Grace, 2015). This case highlights the need for schools to have clear policies about how and when suspected abuse should be reported.

Another recent case focuses on how quickly a report should be made to appropriate authorities. In Indiana, a high school principal was convicted for violating the state’s law of mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse. Indiana law requires that abuse be “immediately” reported. In this case, after the principal learned that a student was raped in the school, he waited more than four hours to report it to the police or Child Protective Services (see Smith v. Indiana, 2014). The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed his conviction of a Class B misdemeanor and his sentence of 120 days in jail—which was suspended to probation by the sentencing judge—100 hours of community service, a $100 fine, and court costs. This case stresses how important it is for educators to have a clear understanding of the exact requirements of their state laws governing reporting requirements for suspected abuse.

While educators may be statutorily required to report suspected abuse in many states, one recent court case has highlighted that school administrators need to make informed and reasonable assessments regarding when to report child abuse. In 2015, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee) upheld the district court’s judgment that a school administrator was not entitled to qualified immunity for having reported a parent for alleged child abuse to Child Protective Services (Wenk v. O’Reilly, 2015).

A parent of a student with intellectual disabilities claimed that a school administrator (the director of pupil services) reported the parent to Child Protective Services in retaliation for his advocacy to change his teenage daughter’s educational plan. Before the report was made, the father and school officials argued about the daughter’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and the father also contacted the Ohio Department of Education about some of these matters. The administrator argued that she had made the report because of comments made by the student in school that involved some inappropriate sexual conduct between the father and daughter. School personnel were told by the student that her dad showered with her to help her wash her hair and removed his clothes so they would not get wet. Child Protective Services, however, found that the claims against the student’s dad were unsubstantiated. The police department subsequently dropped its criminal investigation as well.

The circuit court, in finding against the administrator, rejected the argument that the administrator had qualified immunity and asserted that the parent had established a case of First Amendment retaliation. Specifically, the court discovered some evidence that the administrator may have been motivated in part by the father’s conduct regarding the education of his daughter. The court reviewed emails that the administrator had sent stating that she was annoyed by the father’s advocacy for his daughter’s educational plan. The court also found that although much of the administrator’s report was true, there were some details that may have been fabricated. It was also revealed that the administrator waited three weeks before contacting Child Protective Services about the alleged incidents. The district court had further noted several inconsistencies between what the two teachers testified they told the administrator and what was reported. The National School Boards Association expressed concern that this decision suggests that a mandatory reporter who had reason to believe suspected child abuse was at issue may, under certain circumstances, be sued by the person against whom the report was made. While the facts of this case suggest that there was an inappropriate basis for the administrator to report the abuse, it does raise concerns about when educators have been provided sufficient information to trigger the requirement to report suspected abuse.

Reporting Employees

Requirements of educators to report abuse in schools are not always confined to suspected parental abuse of students. In some cases, school officials may need to report their own employees for suspected child abuse. In Kansas, an appellate court ruled that a trial court’s award of summary judgment to a school regarding the alleged sexual abuse of a student by the school’s athletic coach was improper. Specifically, the court asserted that it was reasonable for a jury to infer, based on the facts, that the school administrator had been given sufficient notice regarding potential sexually abusive conduct by the coach toward the student. The appellate court thus reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded for further proceedings (Canaday v. Midway Denton U.S.D. No. 433, 2009).

In another case, a federal district court in Pennsylvania found that supervisors were on notice about a teacher’s alleged abusive acts and knew or should have known that abuse could continue. The two assistants in the classroom had informed their supervisor about the abuse (Kimberly F. v. Northeastern Education Intermediate Unit 19, 2007). The court disallowed the supervisors from asserting qualified immunity as a defense.

School officials will likely confront situations in which they suspect that one of their students has been abused or neglected inside or outside of school. The cases discussed in this article underscore the need for school personnel to be aware of not only the legal and ethical issues involved, but also to clearly establish and communicate school policies regarding reporting suspected child abuse that are consistent with state laws and regulations.

Suzanne E. Eckes, JD, PhD, is a professor at Indiana University and co-editor of The Principal’s Legal Handbook.

Patrick Ober, JD, is a doctoral student at Indiana University.