POINCIANA – If a public school teacher or administrator suspects that a child might be getting abused, they’re required by law to report it, said Cindy Hartig, a member of the Osceola County School Board.
That’s true even if it’s only a suspicion and not something they have solid evidence of, she added.
“Anybody that currently works in the school district, no matter what their role, if they hear something about abuse, by law they have to report it,” she said.
Even though that’s now state policy, Hartig supports a new bill signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on Friday, that increases penalties for anyone who is aware of instances of child abuse, but chooses not to report it — including school employees.
Schools and universities, the governor’s office noted, could now be fined up to $1 million for failing to report any instances of child abuse that come to their attention.
But if state law already mandates that school workers report possible abuse to the Florida Department of Children and Families, why is this new law necessary?
“I think in some school districts, it’s not reported,” Hartig said, adding that some school teachers make a value judgment on their own, that a student might be lying or exaggerating claims of abuse, either to get attention or create problems for their parents.
“They hear of something, and they don’t think it’s true, so they don’t report it,” she said.
The additional penalties, she added, will help convince all Florida school employees that if there’s a possible child abuse case that comes to their attention, they need to turn it over to DCF, period.
“If it happens, it’s not up to you to decide,” Hartig said. “Those things, unfortunately, do happen.”
Prior to the new penalties being added to the law, Hartig said, it should have been clear to all educators that if they suspect a student is being abused, either by a family member or classmates, it’s up to the state authorities in DCF to conduct the investigation, not the teachers themselves.
“If DCF decides to take the case, they move forward with it,” she said. “If DCF feels it is valid, they follow up on it.”
All school districts in Florida have to follow these policies, Hartig said, although she added that individual districts can enact internal regulations that are stronger than what the state mandates.
“They can have it more stringent, yes, but we have to follow the state law, and report what we know,” she said.
Wendy Farrell of Poinciana, who has worked as a substitute teacher in the local schools, said when she underwent her initial training, that was one of the first things that administrators emphasized to her.
“When I was getting trained as a substitute teacher, I was told any suspicion at all, you had to report it – bruises on their arms, or they’re wearing long sleeve shirts a lot, or they’re quiet and moody,” she said.
And if a student reports actual abuse to a teacher, Farrell added, it’s not up to the teacher to decide if the student is telling the truth.
“Anything that they said to you, you had to report it,” Farrell said.
The benefit of this policy, Hartig said, is that educators spend so many hours every week with students, they get to know them quite well.
“Our teachers obviously know the child – sometimes better than the parent does, because they’re with them most of the day,” she said. “They can see the signs of abuse.”
Not wanting to get involved, she said, simply isn’t an option.
Ironically, although educators are required to report any suspected abuse, paddling students who pose disciplinary problems is still legal in Florida.
“Corporal punishment, or paddling, is still on the books and legal in Florida,” Hartig said.
But she added that principals no longer use physical discipline on students, and haven’t for years.
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