A Vir­ginia school board’s un­con­scionable stance on child abuse

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY MICHELE BOOTH COLE The writer is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Safe Shores – The DC Chil­dren’s Ad­vo­cacy Cen­ter, a non­profit that serves child vic­tims of abuse, and was a mem­ber of the Prince Ge­orge’s County Pub­lic Schools Stu­dent Safety Task Force.

Just when you think the dystopic world of child abuse can­not get any more out­ra­geous, the news of the Rus­sell County (Va.) School Board’s re­sponse to child sex­ual abuse proves you wrong. A jan­i­tor at Le­banon Ele­men­tary School pleaded guilty to 150 counts of ag­gra­vated sex­ual bat­tery, car­nal knowl­edge and sodomy in con­nec­tion with the abuse of four boys, two of whom were stu­dents at the ele­men­tary school. Yet, the school board de­nies re­spon­si­bil­ity.

This pre­pos­ter­ous and reck­less re­sponse by an in­sti­tu­tion en­trusted with the ed­u­ca­tion and care of chil­dren sends a fright­en­ing mes­sage to stu­dents and fam­i­lies as well as an open in­vi­ta­tion to child preda­tors. Preda­tors look for op­por­tu­ni­ties to knit them­selves into the fab­ric of com­mu­ni­ties where chil­dren abound. The school district seems to be flash­ing a neon “Wel­come” sign to those who would harm kids.

For the Rus­sell County School Board to dis­avow its cen­tral role in pro­tect­ing chil­dren is just flatout wrong, legally and morally. Schools by the very virtue of their mis­sion should be among the safest spa­ces for chil­dren in our so­ci­ety. In­deed, schools and ed­u­ca­tors have a duty of care to act with a rea­son­able de­gree of watch­ful­ness, at­ten­tion, cau­tion and pru­dence when­ever stu­dents are in their charge. How could a rea­son­able per­son, who is re­spon­si­ble for other peo­ple’s chil­dren more than seven hours a day, five days a week, not take ba­sic steps to make the en­vi­ron­ment safer? Fun­da­men­tal pro­tec­tion of stu­dents means con­duct­ing ef­fec­tive back­ground checks and en­sur­ing all fac­ulty and staff are pro­vided with in­struc­tion in rec­og­niz­ing, re­spond­ing to and pre­vent­ing child sex­ual abuse. Fur­ther, this duty of care re­quires adults who sus­pect that a child is be­ing harmed to re­port their sus­pi­cions to law en­force­ment or child pro­tec­tive ser­vices.

Chil­dren de­serve to be safe in schools. They must ac­tu­ally be and feel safe to learn. Schools have a mis­sion-based moral and le­gal obli­ga­tion to en­sure safe en­vi­ron­ments by pre­vent­ing and re­port­ing child abuse.

Re­search on ad­verse child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences tells us that child abuse can in­flict life­long dam­age on vic­tims if the adults and sys­tems that are sup­posed to come to chil­dren’s aid don’t step in or, worse, in­ten­tion­ally choose not to know. Both fac­ulty and lead­er­ship at Le­banon Ele­men­tary spot­ted plenty of signs that the jan­i­tor was abus­ing at least one boy — from catch­ing the jan­i­tor and the boy hid­den in a dark room, to see­ing the jan­i­tor give the boy money, to know­ing the boy moved into the jan­i­tor’s home, to learn­ing of an of­fi­cial child abuse com­plaint against the jan­i­tor. Any one of these events would be a red flag to any re­spon­si­ble adult who has had ba­sic train­ing in pre­vent­ing child abuse and/or who sim­ply has any con­cern about their stu­dents’ well-be­ing.

The Le­banon case un­der­scores the im­per­a­tive for schools and all places that serve chil­dren to have and en­force ef­fec­tive child abuse pre­ven­tion poli­cies, which in­clude a code of con­duct for in­ter­per­sonal in­ter­ac­tions and train­ing for all per­son­nel on how to rec­og­nize signs of abuse, how to re­port abuse and how to pre­vent abuse from oc­cur­ring in the first place.

One in 10 chil­dren in the United States will be sex­u­ally abused by his or her 18th birth­day. The only rea­son this shock­ing statis­tic per­sists is be­cause too many adults are shirk­ing their duty. We can stop the vic­tim­iza­tion of chil­dren. It starts with ac­cept­ing our re­spon­si­bil­ity to cre­ate, nur­ture and mon­i­tor safer en­vi­ron­ments for all chil­dren.

We can only hope that the court re­quires the Rus­sell County School Board to rise to its duty. What­ever the out­come, the im­por­tance of this case can’t be over­stated be­cause we’ve hit rock bot­tom when any school not only turns a blind eye to child abuse but also will­fully de­nies its re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect stu­dents from the crime. Ev­ery adult should be out­raged by the school board’s un­prin­ci­pled stance and the po­ten­tial for a dan­ger­ous le­gal prece­dent that would fur­ther en­dan­ger chil­dren. Ei­ther we take ac­tion or ad­mit that chil­dren aren’t re­ally as im­por­tant as many claim.

Chil­dren de­serve to be safe in schools. They must ac­tu­ally be and feel safe to learn.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.