Schools provide important education for children and a space for them to discover who they are and form friendships. Schools also serve as a safe haven for some children. 30% of children who are sexually abused are abused by family members, so being at school gives them time to be away from their abuser.[1,2] So, what does that mean for remote students? The school experience is very different for remote students and safety precautions need to be too. School officials have played a major part in reporting child abuse. They reported as much as a third of all abuse cases to ChildLine in 2018.
Teachers and school officials are also responsible for more than half (52%) of sexual abuse reports to law enforcement. But due to the global health crisis, many children are vulnerable to abuse at home. Since the pandemic began, the official child abuse report rates dropped by 30%, whereas calls to abuse hotlines by minors rose by more than 20%. Experts believe that the real number of abuse instances is higher than what’s recorded and in the coming months, we will learn more about child abuse statistics during the Coronavirus. So, teachers need an extra set of compassionate eyes when engaging with remote students.
While the CDC has now recommended for schools to reopen, no child is completely safe from abuse until they’re separated from their abuser. Therefore, teachers need to learn how to determine if a student is being maltreated — whether it’s in a face-to-face or distance learning setup. Here, we’ll discuss how teachers can identify the signs of sexual abuse at home and what they can do to keep remote students safe.
First, there are actionable guidelines that teachers can follow to encourage students to talk about their experiences. This includes asking the school administration to train the whole faculty on how to react when a student discloses abuse. Additionally, make sure that teachers are equipped with the right protocols. Do you know your mandated reporting requirements? Does your institution have a Code of Conduct that you know of? Are school counselors available and equipped to help?
Abuse comes in different forms and can express itself through many different signs. For this reason, teachers need to be extra vigilant. Not all cases of abuse, especially sexual abuse, reveal themselves physically. Injuries and bruises are always cause for concern but are not the only signs to look for. Pay attention to behavior and attitude changes in your remote students. Abuse has a powerful effect on a child’s mental health.
How do your students present themselves during class? A child may start being habitually late or absent and subsequently have difficulty catching up on scholastic activities. They might not turn in assignments, begin misbehaving, or become withdrawn. On the other hand, a student who was previously falling behind may start showing perfect behavior as a way to protect themselves.
While some children exhibit behavior changes like becoming very quiet, some younger children may actually directly narrate stories of their abuse, even though they might not know how to communicate their experience correctly. If you are a teacher that works with young children, encourage them and parents to always use the proper names when referring to body parts. This makes it easy for a child to be understood if they need to disclose abuse.
If you notice a big change in personality, be curious. Find ways to have conversations with the student and ask open-ended questions so you can gauge your student’s mindset. You might even establish a code word or symbol the child can share if they are in trouble and need help.
Most importantly, teachers should find healthy ways to connect with their students. This way, you build a bond of trust that shows your students you are a safe adult. While connecting won’t look the same as it did when class was in-person, it’s up to us to ensure remote students’ safety.
Reese Jones is an aspiring writer and teaching consultant who provides guidance to schools across the country. In her free time, she does volunteer work in her community and caring for her grandmother who has looked after her since she was young.
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