Schools play important role in identifying child abuse

Last spring, in response to a classroom question posed by an elementary school teacher, a 5-year-old raised her hand and said something shocking.

When the girl’s twin sister chimed in and corroborated the statement, the teacher took them aside.

She asked each about body parts and what was happening at home. She suspected sexual abuse.

Then came a call to 911 and police.

Later the girls’ father was charged with rape.

The case – some details of which were described in a Sedgwick County District Court document – illustrates what authorities say are schools’ important roles in identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect.

Reports, they say, tend to tick upward when children return to school in the fall. The reason? Teachers and school staff are watching.

“Teachers … and the school officials are so important to these cases coming to light because (they notice) the bruises and the injuries and the things no one saw all summer long because the kid was at home,” Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said.

During the summer, he said, “There’s really nobody keeping an eye on the kids other than their families and those close to them,” who are most often the culprits in cases of neglect and child abuse.

A ‘safe zone’

The Wichita-Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit, currently housed in the basement of the state office building at 130 S. Market, investigates the bulk of crimes against children in Sedgwick County.

The unit is a partnership between the Wichita Police Department, the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office and the Kansas Department for Children and Families. But other local organizations, including the school districts, also play a role in keeping kids safe, EMCU Lt. Travis Rakestraw said.

Last year EMCU handled 552 sex crimes, 754 abuse and endangerment cases, and 3,034 runaway cases, according to statistics provided by the agency.

A look at the numbers over a five-year period shows some minor fluctuations in the categories from year to year, but for the most part the case count has remained relatively flat.

Rakestraw said EMCU tends to be busier when school is in session because kids are in a more structured environment, and they’re away from home. They’re also talking to teachers.

“It’s kind of a safe zone for them, and often they feel more comfortable reporting crimes,” he said.

Of school teachers and staff, he said: “They don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call us when they’re getting a report from a student.”

‘Obligation to report’

One of the reasons teachers and school staff so readily report suspected child abuse and neglect is that they all fall into a group of people required to do so under Kansas law.

Mandatory reporters “shall report the matter promptly” if they have any reason to suspect that physical, mental, emotional or sexual abuse or neglect is harming a child, according to Diana Schunn, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County.

Mandatory reporters include people who provide medical care or treatment, state-licensed mental health service providers, school employees, public safety workers such as police and firefighters and anyone employed by or volunteering for organizations that provide social services to pregnant teenagers.

The law also says anyone who has reason to suspect that a child may be a victim “can report the matter,” Schunn said.

“Children aren’t responsible for their own protection,” she said. “We have a moral and ethical obligation to report something when we are concerned.”

Terri Moses, executive director of Safety Services at Wichita Public Schools, said there’s no specific training that’s required for staff and teachers to complete; rather there are policies that staff members read and sign.

DCF, she said, has talked to school nurses and social workers about child neglect and abuse.

She also said principals at individual schools can ask and have asked EMCU to come in and speak to their teachers and staff. Some of those meetings have included discussions about the physical and behavioral signs of abuse and neglect.

But, Moses said, the main focus for district employees is this: “If you suspect, you report.”

“We don’t want … staff to be investigators. Their job is to be reporters,” she said, adding that employees are told to not ask too many questions if they have suspicions.

“We emphasize, when we do get questions like that, do not investigate. It is DCF and law enforcement’s job to do the investigations.”

Moses said the district recommends teachers and staff use the online reporting system at the Kansas Protection Report Center if a child doesn’t appear to be in immediate danger.

If a child appears to be in imminent danger – for example, he or she is afraid to go home or there are signs of physical abuse – then the school calls 911, she said.

“The system is set up really well to assist children,” Moses said.