New law: Teachers must immediately report suspected abuse

Joseph C. Garza | Tribune-StarTrisha Guinn, a forensic interviewer with Susie's Place, displays some of the informational material about child sexual abuse prevention programs that Susie's Place offers for teachers. Susie's Place is a child advocacy center with offices in Avon, Bloomington and Terre Haute.

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In July, the administrator of a private Christian school in Anderson was charged with failure to report child abuse after waiting four days to inform authorities about allegations of a teacher's inappropriate behavior with a student.

According to reports, the administrator told authorities he delayed making the report because he wanted to confront the employee (who was later terminated) and speak with other school officials.

Similar instances of delayed child abuse reporting in Indiana have prompted state legislators to pass a new law that places immediate reporting responsibility directly on the shoulders of school employees who suspect abuse or neglect – even before they notify administrators.

Eric Hylton, Indiana State Teacher Association legal counsel, recently informed ISTA members of that change.

As of July 1, Indiana Code 31-33-5-2 now requires the school employee to immediately report suspected child abuse or neglect to the Department of Child Services or to a local law enforcement agency, and then notify the principal or the principal’s designee that a report has been made.

The new law also states that a school “may not establish any policy that restricts or delays the duty of an employee or individual to report under this chapter.”

Previously, the Indiana child abuse reporting law required that any school employee, “who has reason to believe that a child is a victim of child abuse or neglect” must make an immediate report to their principal or the principal’s designee, and the principal or designee was then required to immediately report the allegation to the DCS or to a local law enforcement agency.

State Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, one of the legislation's authors, said recently the change was made because there "is a history of issues like that getting swept under the rug."

In the Anderson case, Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings cited the new law, saying that "teachers cannot just report it to their supervisor, they have to make the call to the police (or DCS) themselves. The staff member has to do it immediately," he told one media outlet.

Report 'as fast as you can'

Now, school districts across Indiana are amending policies to comply with the law, and legal experts – including Hylton and Jonathan Mayes of Bose, McKinney and Evans – are explaining the changes to clients and answering questions as school officials seek clarification on the definition of "immediately" and when school principals can and should be informed.

In a 2014 case, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld a misdemeanor failure to report child abuse conviction and found that "four hours was too long" for a high school principal to report to authorities an alleged case of abuse, Mayes said.

Mayes said teachers and administrators are being told to respond to these types of situations "as fast as you possibly can."

The Vigo County School Corp. is among districts changing its policy related to reporting of child abuse or neglect. But instead of a detailed policy, the district now plans to have a more general policy, with specific administrative guidelines outlining procedures employees should follow. The district sought the legal advice of Mayes.

State law in this area changes frequently, said Tom Balitewicz, VCSC director of student services, and administrative guidelines can be changed more quickly, whereas changes to board policy take more time and require three readings.

The new statute imposes two clear obligations, Mayes said. Once child abuse and neglect is suspected, DCS or law enforcement must be immediately notified and teachers must, at a minimum, notify administrators after notifying DCS.

The statute does not prohibit the teacher from simultaneously notifying an administrator while reporting to DCS, Mayes said. There may be practical circumstances where an administrator is told at the same time as authorities.

For example, a teacher who learns of suspected child abuse might call an administrator to cover the classroom while the teacher reports to DCS; also, a teacher might be standing next to an administrator when a parent emails the teacher about a concern, Mayes said.

"Nothing in the statute requires that the teacher conceal that information from the administrator, report to DCS and then minutes later inform the administrator. I suspect most would agree that such practices would be silly," he said. "However, a teacher must report suspected child abuse and neglect immediately and should not wait to first tell administrators before calling DCS."

Other aspects

The law also has educational components.

Starting in 2018, the new law also requires public, charter and accredited nonpublic schools to provide age-appropriate child abuse and child sexual abuse education to children in K-12 by Dec. 15 each year.

It also requires the state Department of Education, no later than July 1, 2018, "to make available model educational materials and model response policies and reporting procedures concerning child abuse and child sexual abuse to assist schools with the implementation of K-12 education programs and school response and reporting policies.

Emily Perry, who works with child abuse and neglect victims, says the new law "was not put in place to be punitive to school corporations ... It was put in place to protect kids, and that is where the focus needs to stay."

She is executive director of Susie's Place, which provides a neutral, child-friendly center for the investigation of alleged child abuse and neglect. It recently opened an office in downtown Terre Haute.

Susie's Place staff already provide education on child abuse and neglect to both educators and students, and they expect to get much busier with the new law, Perry said.

The intent of the new law is to remove any potential delay in reporting, and to ensure teachers and staff understand they are required without delay to pick up the phone and make a report to authorities if they suspect abuse or neglect, Perry said.

It's also intended to equip teachers and administrations with the information they need so they can make good decisions and react appropriately when reporting suspected abuse or neglect, she said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com

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