By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
As we continue our “back-to-school” focus this month at See the Triumph, it’s important to address how teachers and other school personnel can respond if they know or suspect a student in their school or classroom is living in a violent home. This includes children who are experiencing violence or abuse directly, such as through physical, sexual, and/or emotional child abuse and/or neglect, as well as children who witness domestic violence involving their parents. Other forms of family violence also may impact children, such as sibling abuse or witnessing elder abuse if they’re living with elderly family members. Of course, other forms of non-family-related violence may impact children in schools, such as bullying, street violence, or gang violence.
In this message, my main focus is on how teachers and other professionals working in schools can help students if they learn or suspect that their students are experiencing violence in their families or homes. The following list offers some basic suggestions for teachers or other school personnel when faced with this situation. Every situation is unique, however, so if you are in this situation, be sure to consult with local organizations in your community, as well as to follow any relevant laws and regulations within your state or organization.
1. First, make safety your top priority. Safety is a basic human need. Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Safety needs are among the most basic, fundamental human needs. In violent situations, safety must become a top priority. This relates to the safety of your student, their family, other students and professionals working in your school, and yourself. Any actions you take in response to the known or suspected violence should be considered through a safety lens to decrease the likelihood that the steps you take could bring safety risks for anyone involved.
2. Second, trust your intuition. Violence in a family is often shrouded in secrecy. A child who has been abused or witnessed abuse may have been threatened to not tell anyone about what they have experienced or heard. Victims of abuse also may carry a lot of shame about their experiences, and it can be very difficult to admit what has happened. Students who’ve experienced this type of violence may even lie to further hide their experiences. Therefore, anticipate that a student who is experiencing violence in their home may not disclose this to you, even if you ask them about it directly. You may have a sense that something is “off” with a student you know, or you may simply be suspicious that something is going on with them, but you don’t know yet exactly what it is. Although there may indeed be nothing going on, if you start to have some sort of intuition that a student you know is impacted by violence, trust that intuition as a sign that the situation needs attention. If you work directly with students and see them daily, you are in a prime position to notice if anything changes--so, remain open to what your intuition is trying to tell you.
3. Related to #2, it’s important to be alert to possible signs that a child may be experiencing abuse, and take them seriously if you notice them. Two useful resources for learning more about the signs of abuse are available through the Mayo Clinic and HelpGuide. Some signs are more obvious than others, such as inconsistent stories about the source of bruises or injuries, or direct statements about the abuse. However, many of the indicators of abuse are more subtle and need to be considered in light of the child’s history, past functioning, and other issues going on in their lives. For example, a child may seem to begin to lose self-confidence. This could be a result of violence, but there are many other possible factors at play (e.g., struggling with difficult subject matter at school, and illness in the family, or perceived difficulties at a favorite activity or hobby). Therefore, it’s important to be alert for signs of possible violence, but also to consider any possible signs as part of an overall picture of what’s going on in the student’s life. Also, remember that some children can experience abuse, but not demonstrate any outright signs or effects of that abuse.
4. Document any signs of abuse that you notice over time. Unless there are organizational policies that prohibit this type of documentation, it can be extremely useful to document any potential signs of abuse that you notice over time. Not only can this information be extremely valuable if you need to make a report to Child Protective Services (see #5 below), this documentation also can be extremely valuable to identifying patterns over time and building a history that can help you piece together your observations the could be indicative of abuse. A single possible indicator of violence or abuse can be very difficult to decipher, but a documented history that demonstrates a series of patterns over time can help you to remember all of the signs you’ve noticed. This can then help you put together the pieces of the puzzle so you’ll be in the best position to help and support the student in becoming safe.
5. Be sure to follow any relevant laws, professional ethics, and organizational policies. A full discussion of the relevant legal, ethical, and organizational issues surrounding children’s abuse and neglect within a school setting is beyond the scope of this blog post, and it’s important for you to become knowledgeable about any specific guidelines or regulations that you are required to follow by virtue or your location, professional affiliations, and workplaces. Nonetheless, one of the main issues to consider when discussing the issue of family violence for school-age children is whether and when a report needs to be made to Child Protective Services. Again, teachers and other school personnel should familiarize themselves and follow the laws of their state, as these laws do tend to vary to some degree between states. The decision as to whether and when to report known or suspected child abuse or maltreatment is a complicated one, to be certain. However, for the most part, it is wise to adopt a cautious approach, meaning that when there is sufficient reason to suspect possible maltreatment, it is important to make that report. The specific types of maltreatment that must be reported can vary from state to state, but it’s important to note that minor children witnessing parental domestic violence or other abuse in the home is often considered a form of child neglect, and therefore is often required to be reported to Child Protective Services. Other relevant legal, ethical, and organizational issues that should be addressed include maintaining appropriate confidentiality and professional boundaries, child custody issues (if applicable), and educational privacy, especially when communicating with other professionals about the student’s situation.
6. Consult with other professionals. Because of the complexity of these situations, if you know or suspect a child is experiencing violence or abuse, be sure to consult with other professionals who are knowledgeable to support you in making the most appropriate decisions related to the case. Within a school setting, you should notify your supervisor and follow any guidelines they offer. In addition, it can be extremely useful to consult with specialized professionals in your area who work to address domestic violence and/or child maltreatment in your community. Be sure to document any conversations you have so that you’ll have a timeline of events, as well as documentation of the outcomes of these conversations, especially if you ever need that information in the course of a Child Protective Services or other legal investigation.
7. Determine whether it is safe and appropriate to discuss your concerns directly with the student and/or any involved parents or guardians. Sometimes, a direct discussion about known or suspected is not safe. Furthermore, if abuse is occurring, it is best to avoid asking leading questions that might eventually compromise an investigation of abuse, such as by providing a young student with language to describe their abuse that could be used against them in court proceedings. Therefore, if you know that an investigation is underway, or you suspect that one may be soon (e.g., if you have just made a Child Protective Services report), be sure to consult with the investigator to learn whether there are any restrictions as to what or how you should talk with the student. However, at other times, a direct discussion with the student and/or their family members may be warranted. If this is the case, be sure to have this discussion in a safe location, and avoid any direct accusations. Rather, you might say, “I’m concerned about you. I wanted to talk with you to find out what, if anything, has been going on with you lately, and how I can help you.” Or, you might focus on a specific sign that you’ve noticed and say something like, “I’ve noticed that your grades lately haven’t been where they usually are. Sometimes that happens if a student is going through challenges in their lives. So, I was curious what might be behind your grades dropping lately.” Try to keep this conversation as concrete and specific as possible, and be sure to express your concern in a compassionate, caring manner.
8. Mobilize your school’s resources to help provide support and resources to the student and their family. Consider what other resources or people in your school might be able to provide some support to the student and/or their family. For example, a school counselor may be able to offer some brief counseling to help the student enhance their self-esteem and build coping resources. A school social worker may be available to help coordinate the student’s case if other community systems become involved. Also consider creative resources that may be available through your school. For example, your school library might have books available about helping kids talk about difficult situations. An extracurricular activity might provide an opportunity for the student to build friendships and self-confidence. Together with other professionals in your school, consider what resources could help to promote the safety and well-being of the student.
9. Link the student to resources in your community. Even if you don’t know any students currently who are facing violence in their homes, take some time to learn about the resources available in your community that address violence and abuse. There are a variety of different types of resources, and every community is likely to offer a unique set of resources. Resources that you might find available in your own community include the following:
10. Remain supportive and non-judgmental. Remaining non-judgmental is one of the core steps we at See the Triumph suggest when helping someone who has been abused. We’ve learned through our research that people who have experienced violence often experience a great deal of stigma, blame, and judgement, and this stigma can make it even more difficult for people to come forward and reach out for help. As an important adult in your student’s life, you can can make a huge impact on their life by helping them feel accepted, validated, and supported, even as they face a very difficult situation in their lives. Even if you need to take difficult steps to address known or suspected violence in students’ homes (e.g., making a Child Protective Services report), do your best to take these steps in a way that is respectful and sensitive to the unique needs of your student and their family.
Addressing known or suspected violence within a school setting is inherently complex, and every situation is unique. However, teachers and other school personnel can be proactive and prepare themselves to respond appropriately to these students, with the ultimate goal of promoting students’ safety, well-being, and academic success. The steps included here are certainly not an exhaustive list, as a variety of other needs and concerns can arise in any given situation. However, we encourage teachers and other school personnel to commit to making safe, supportive, and appropriate decisions when working to support students whose lives have been impacted by violence in the home.