Just as parents need to be advocates for their own and other children, schools and institutions need to be very clear about their role in the protection of children. As obvious as this statement seems, it is an area which is not addressed sufficiently. Then, when there is an incident or an accident, the institutions policies, practices and legal requirements all come into play in assessing institutional liability. There are many areas which can be addressed with an eye to prevention, protecting children and reducing liability.
Screening and Training of Employees
All staff (including janitors, cafeteria workers, playground monitors and professional staff) should be fingerprinted and checked through the Central Registry for Child Abuse and state and local police files for a history of child abuse or other criminal convictions. Individuals with a history of child abuse should not be hired for any position.
Child Abuse Reporting
The Mandatory Reporting Law requires any person who supervises or has responsibility for children who has reason to know or suspect that a child has been subjected to abuse or neglect, or who has observed a child being subjected to circumstances or conditions which are or could result in abuse or neglect to report it. In some cases, policy requires that the report be made to the administration. In some cases the report can be made directly to the Child Abuse Hotline. All employees should understand that failure to make such a report is a crime. For more information on reporting laws in all 50 states, the Child Welfare Information Gateway is a current source.
The difference between supervision policy and reality is a source of major liability. How do you know that the actual levels of required supervision are taking place? What are the risk areas in your setting?
Schools cannot ignore the work requirements and child care dilemmas of today’s parents. Does your school have a provision for parents who go to work long before school starts or come home long after school is over? Schools cannot take a position of blaming. They need to confront the problem and work with parents to create a solution which takes care of the children.
Walking To School and the Bus
Children need to walk in pairs or groups to school or to the bus. Institutions may need to change their bus routes to ensure that single children are not waiting for a bus or being dropped off alone. Failure to consider the needs of children in establishing policies may be considered negligent. By the way, bus drivers should also be subject to background searches, even if they are not employees but are contracted through another company.
Institutional play areas should be fenced. Areas which cannot be seen by supervising personnel should not be used by children. Fences should be in good repair with no areas which could injure children. Children should never be on the playground without active supervision. A cluster of adults chatting is not supervision. Play areas hold myriad opportunities for failure to supervise charges. Look carefully at the entire operation, perhaps from the vantage point of a child.
Take a walk out to your playground and through the halls and rooms of your institution. Equipment which is not in good repair is a preventable accident waiting to happen.
Pick-ups and Releasing Children
Institutions are very aware in theory about not releasing children to anyone other than the persons designated to pick up children. In practice, I have found most institutions, particularly schools to be extremely lax about this. Most have no idea who picks up children. This is a liability.
Field trips are a tough time to maintain an accurate head count. Be sure that your institution has a system for knowing what children belong with what adults and how adults know all children are accounted for. Head counting is part of field trips. Before leaving or entering any area, heads should be counted to be certain every child is present. Losing a child on a field trip is a gigantic exposure. Guard against it now.
Prevention Programs in Your Institution or Schools
You’ve probably discovered that children often take things they hear in school, at camp or at the doctors more seriously than what they hear at home. Institutions are critical partners in prevention of child abuse. What prevention of child abuse programs are available in your community. Are these programs age appropriate, role-play based, and do they give children lots of opportunities to think about and practice prevention techniques without being fearful or explicit? If you would like to introduce your school to the Safe Child Program, request a brochure or share this site with a school or group in your community.
Sherryll Kraizer, PhD is available to assist you in assessing your environment, practices and policies to reduce your institutions risk or to assist you in evaluating an incident which has occurred. For consultation or expert witness services, you may contact her through the Coalition for Children.