School of Education: Legal Seminar Videos

Mandatory Child Abuse Reporting: Legal FAQ


Legal FAQ

Dr. Erma Jean Sims,
Sonoma State University

Frequently Asked Questions. Some of you, last semester, emailed some questions to one of my colleagues at Sonoma State in the Elementary Ed. program. I'd like to go over those with you. We're going to talk about how much and what is appropriate affection and hugs. We're going to look at a situation around afterschool activities with a teacher, pornographic site that was in the classroom, discipline gone too far? and pet names. The student wrote, I'm a lover of giving hugs. Especially to those who do not get enough at home. I feel that a hug is a positive start of the day and that it validates each and every one of my students. Legally, what kind of physical interaction is acceptable between teacher and student? And, lastly, does the gender or sexual orientation of the teacher matter? This is a major concern for teachers, especially in the elementary schools when children are very affectionate, in intercity urban schools when children seem to need some affirmation in the form of hugs and affection. So we wonder what is appropriate and legal touching. We run into a problem when a young child grabs a teacher around the waist. Or, if the child is short enough, grabbing that teacher around the thighs. Face to face contact. As you can see, that child's head, if short enough, lands in that teacher's crotch. We definitely want to avoid that kind of hugging. We also, with older children, want to avoid that kind of hugging where female and male body parts touch. Her breast is against his chest; his genitals may be touching her body. So, the easiest thing is to avoid face to face hugs. So what would be an appropriate hug to give? Side to side absolutely, thank you for that. You can hug a child around their shoulders when you're side to side. Yes. It's a good question. Because kids are so spontaneous and they're latched onto you before you can get that side hug in. Over the course of a couple of days in your new classroom you're going to be able to identify who those huggers are, who those kids are that seem to need a lot more attention and a lot more affection. So what many teachers do is they smile and simply take a step back, adjusting the distance between them and the child and find another way of affirming them. This might be high-fives, only the palms touching. For older kids in high school, it might be fists together as a show of affection and affirmation. Or, it may be elbows touching. We're going to get really creative about how to affirm kids without touching them inappropriately. The other thing that often times, teachers are concerned about is if I'm a different gender than the student who is hugging me, is there a greater possibility of being accused of sexual harassment or unwanted touching. It doesn't matter if it's female to female, male to male, or male to female, the chances of an unwanted touching or sexual advance is the same regardless of the sex. The other concern is that if I'm an openly gay or lesbian teacher, is there a greater likelihood that my touching may be misinterpreted by the other students or the faculty in that building. Yes. Unfortunately we have so many myths and stereotypes about gay and lesbian people in general, even more caution in the school setting. So, if we can just use some of those other ways of showing affirmation and affection without bodies touching each other. In that side hug, let's keep it high along the shoulders. We know that once we start to move down the arm we will be in very close proximity to that child's breast, or if low enough we may be in an incident where we would brush their bottom or genitals. So, we want to be really, really careful to keep it a high touch. You can also pat people on the back as a way of affirming them. I don't want to discourage you from being affectionate and caring with your students, I just want to caution you about the possibility of an allegation of sexual harassment based on how you do that. I'm going to open it up to all questions for the last 15 minutes. Pet Names. Have you ever noticed how some teachers, sometimes it's because they can't remember the child's name, or other times it's simply because they really do like this child and feel more affectionate to that child? Can I, as a classroom teacher, refer to my students as honey and sweetie without being accused of sexual harassment? I'm going to ask you to be really cautious. The child did not come to school with a legal name of honey or sweetie, it's important to use the child's legal name. If the child has a preferred nickname, you'll find it on the child's registration materials in the front office or will be informed of it by a parent. We're always safer if we use the child's legal name. After-School Activities with Teachers. Many teachers, knowing that their students don't have transportation, don't have certain things, will want to be a Good Samaritan. In this instance, the student wrote, I know a male teacher who is taking the girls shopping for high-heels after school. I suspect there might be more to this situation. How old are these children who would be needing high-heels and a visit to the mall provided by the teacher? When your school day ends or your contract hours end for the day, it's safest not to take children anywhere. Not walk them to the location, and certainly not put them in your car. Frequently teachers have the minimal liability insurance on their car. That car crashes, that child is maimed, hurt, injured or killed, the question is Why were you taking this child, after hours, after your contract period, in a car or away from the school grounds? They should be taken to these activities by a parent or loved one or significant person in their household, and not you. This thing of knowing or sensing that something is wrong. There's a good possibility that he is helping or she is helping this child to get high heels in order to gain sexual favors, and in the process, particularly if they're taking children into the dressing room, fondling or touching them, or seeing them in their undergarments. One of the questions that frequently comes up is around comforting and consoling students. You have a child who just fell down in the playground, is crying in the bathroom, their knee is bleeding, you can see the blood through their slacks and your first reaction is to help them off with their slacks and administer some kind of medical attention, in a way of comforting that child. Absolutely not. That's the job of the principal, vice-principal, school nurse or someone designated by the front office to handle emergencies. Frequently as a PE teacher you're told by other students, could you please come into the locker room, Sandra is very distressed in there and needs some attention. You're first reaction is to rush into that gym locker room, seeing her crying, throw your arms around her, try to ascertain what's going on, and comfort her. Notice the scenario, this child is in her undergarments. Even though your intentions are good, what are the other students in that locker room thinking is going on? Are you doing it for some hidden agenda reasons? You find this student attractive, here's the perfect opportunity to show some affection and maybe get some back. We have to be really, really careful that we don't compromise ourselves or the student. So we're going to be especially careful around comforting and consoling. Let's look quickly at the next slide. Two girls are in a classroom, they're looking at a pornographic website on the computer. The teacher comes back into the room, and tells the students, get off the website. The girls just start laughing, one of the girls made a comment to the teacher about the size of her friend's large breasts, and said to the teacher, wouldn't you like to touch them? It is possible for students to harass their teachers. Sexual innuendos, the rumor mill, making an advance at the teacher that would invite some contact. Does the teacher have a responsibility to inform the school administrator? Absolutely. Many of you may be wondering why the school administration hadn't blocked out those sites on the school computers. That's a good question. They should be blocked out. Maybe the teacher was viewing these materials himself on his lunch hour and didn't have a chance to adequately close them out before rushing out of the room. We've got a lot of concerns here. The display of sexually graphic material, pornographic material, is sexual harassment. These girls are harassing this teacher, and he needs to inform his administrator and admonish them to stop their behavior immediately, report any additional behavior of this kind to the administrator immediately and then take necessary precautions to make a written and accurate report and be prepared to participate in an investigation of this. Let's look at our next slide. Discipline Gone Too Far. Jimmy's a special ed. student in Ms. Ruff's classroom. He frequently wanders around the classroom and disrupts other students. The instructional assistant in this classroom has observed Ms. Ruff dragging Jimmy by his arm back to his seat. When Jimmy refuses to sit down, Ms. Ruff has on several occasions grabbed Jimmy's shoulders and forcibly sat him down in the seat. Jimmy then turns to the instructional assistant and shows her a bruise on his arm. Does Ms. Ruff's actions constitute child abuse? Yes. And very frequently, these things happen in special ed. classrooms. These children have a lot of needs. Many of them are not aware of what their behaviors are or how to stop them. Frequently teachers get exasperated with the situation and begin breaking the law and abusing children in their own rooms. Now, Jimmy did take the time to show Ms. Ruff's instructional assistant this bruise on his arm. The instructional assistant must file a report of child abuse. Even though she's afraid that Ms. Ruff may can her, get her fired, or even if Ms. Ruff has been a classroom teacher for the last 13 years and you believe as an instructional assistant that she knows more about how to handle these children than you do. You still have a responsibility of reporting child abuse. Some of you will be student teaching or observing in special ed. classrooms. Please, make these mandatory reports if you see this going on. The instructional assistant should not in any way fear retaliation from Ms. Ruff, the instructional assistant has absolute immunity against civil or criminal prosecution.

CREDITS: Instruction and Content by Dr. Erma Jean Sims, Sonoma State University. Videography and Technical support by Mark Niemann, Sonoma State University