New law: Teachers must directly report abuse suspicions

A new Indiana law requires school employees to report suspected child abuse or neglect to the Department of Child Services or to local law enforcement before notifying a principal or 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.”

State Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, one of the legislation’s co-authors, said the change was made because there “is a history of issues like that getting swept under the rug and not reported.”

The Indiana State Teachers Association, through its legal counsel, Eric Hylton, has been making efforts to educate its members on the changes.

Prior to July 1, 2017, 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, Hylton wrote.

Starting in 2018, Senate Bill 355 also requires public, charter and accredited nonpublic schools to provide age-appropriate child abuse and child sexual abuse education to children in kindergarten through 12th grades by Dec. 15 each year.

Teresa Meredith, ISTA president, said the change in law emphasizes “all of us having first-hand responsibilities to protect kids.” She believes it’s better to “err on the side of caution” and report rather than “find out later that something horrible happened.”

She believes it’s best the person who suspects abuse to be the one to call CPS or law enforcement.

Lisa Tanselle, legal counsel with the Indiana School Boards Association, said that in passing the law, “The General Assembly continues to look at ways to ensure kids are kept safe.”

The Vigo County School Corp. is in the process of changing its policy on reporting of child abuse/neglect to comply with state law, based on ISBA’s recommendations. The policy change had its first reading at the July 17 School Board meeting and is subject to two more readings.

The policy presented stated, in part, “If any school staff member has reason to believe a child has been abused or neglected, then he/she must immediately make an oral or a written report to the Department of Child Services or local law enforcement. The staff member must notify the school principal of such reporting.”

School Board member Jackie Lower said Tuesday the policy “needs to be clear that the person who observes or has reason to believe or has evidence that supports the child has been abused has to report to authorities first, then to the principal.”

Bose, McKinney and Evans, an Indianapolis law firm used by the Vigo County School Corp., recently published a “Back to School Legal Alert” to inform educators about changes in the law.

The legal alert stated: “Effective July 1, a new change in reporting child abuse and neglect took place. Previously, the reporting statute generated some confusion by imposing on all school employees an obligation to report child abuse and neglect to DCS or law enforcement, but there was also language instructing the employee to notify the “individual in charge of the . . . school.”

“Now, the law requires reporting without making provision for a report to the school administrator. Updating guidance to administrators on this important development is crucial to avoid delay. School corporations should also consider guidance that follows the statute but also preserves communication with administrators so that administrators, to the greatest extent possible, can be involved in any DCS report,” the Bose, McKinney and Evans legal alert stated.