New Law Protects Children from Abuse by School Employees

Just last week, the Governor signed Public Act 11-93, imposing new requirements intended to protect children from abuse by school employees. The law adopts recommendations made in a report issued in July 2010 by the Office of the Child Advocate and the Attorney General. The report, Protecting Our Children: Improving Protections for Children When Allegations Are Made that School System Personnel Abuse or Neglect Children, was issued after a lengthy investigation into the response of school districts, the Department of Children and Families (DCF), and the State Department of Education to allegations that school employees have abused or neglected children.

I was the lead investigator for the Office of the Child Advocate and believe the new law is critical to closing significant loopholes in the system designed to protect children. As parents, we send our children to school with the belief that they are safe. While the vast majority of school employees present no safety risk to students, the investigation of the Office of the Child Advocate and Attorney General found that the mechanisms in place to protect children were woefully inadequate. It is my sincere hope that Public Act 11-93 will ensure that those individuals who do harm children will not be employed by schools.

What did the investigation reveal and how does the law address the problem?

While the State Department of Education had the authority to conduct checks of the DCF Child Abuse and Neglect registry prior to issuing licenses to teachers and administrators, they didn’t. Schools didn’t check the registry either. As a result, individuals on the child abuse and neglect registry could be licensed and hired as teachers and school administrators. The law addresses this problem by requiring the State Department of Education to check the DCF registry prior to issuing or renewing licenses and by requiring schools to check the registry as part of the hiring process for school employees.

Another significant problem uncovered by our investigation was that neither schools nor the State Department of Education had a system for documenting or keeping track of allegations that teachers or administrators abused or neglected students. DCF wasn’t legally required to, and did not, notify the State Department of Education of allegations of abuse or neglect. Even when DCF found that a teacher abused or neglected a student, the State Department of Education didn’t always receive notice. This occurred for a number of reasons. Sometimes the teacher resigned and schools interpreted existing law to mean that notification wasn’t required. These teachers could simply get a job in another district and the new district would have no knowledge of the prior allegations. Sometimes DCF substantiated neglect but not abuse and existing law didn’t require notification to the State Department of Education for findings of neglect, only abuse. Sometimes it was because DCF notified the school Superintendent as the law required but the Superintendent didn’t notify the State Department of Education. The law fixes these problems by requiring DCF to notify the State Department of Education whenever DCF receives a report that a teacher or school administrator is accused of abusing or neglecting a student, requiring schools to document and keep track of all allegations, and by requiring DCF to directly notify the State Department of Education when DCF finds that a teacher or school administrator has neglected or abused a child.

The law also addresses gaps in mandated reporting. Mandated reporting laws exist to protect children – by ensuring that suspicion of child abuse and neglect is reported to DCF to be investigated. During the investigation, we found that mandated reporting policies were outdated and didn’t reflect the law. Some school district employees didn’t even know they were mandated reporters, didn’t receive adequate training to identify abuse or neglect, and were reluctant to make reports. Even when reports were made to DCF, school districts didn’t always cooperate with DCF’s investigations of school employees. The new law requires DCF and the State Department of Education to develop model mandated reporter policies, schools to ensure that all school employees receive mandated reporter training, DCF to track delays in reporting and make referrals for prosecution when appropriate, and schools to share information with DCF.

Public Act 11-93 is an important part of protecting children from abuse or neglect. The co-chairs of the legislature’s Education Committee, Senator Andrea Stillman and Representative Andrew Fleischmann, the Human Services Committee, and the Governor should be commended for passing the law quickly.

If you believe a child is being abused or neglected by a school employee, or any other adult, you should report the abuse to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) by calling 1-800-842-2288 (TDD: 1-800-624-5518). For more information on reporting child abuse and neglect, visit DCF’s “Q &A About Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect.”