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Volume 11, Number 2
March/April 1995

The Physically or Sexually Abused Child

What Teachers Need to Know


One million children are victims of abuse or neglect each year in the United States—and those are just the confirmed cases. Experts agree that millions of other cases go unreported. One-fourth of the cases we know about involve serious physical abuse; another 15 percent, sexual abuse.

Abused children come from all kinds of families, but almost all have one thing in common: they go to school. For many of these children, caring teachers and counselors offer the best hope of relief and protection. Indeed, teachers in all 50 states have a legal obligation to report suspicions of child abuse to the police or child welfare authorities. Yet research shows that three out of four teachers may be unable to recognize the signs of abuse, even in obvious cases.

To encourage reporting, all states grant teachers immunity from lawsuits concerning any child-abuse report made in good faith, even when the report is mistaken and causes wrongly accused people considerable anguish. Still, many teachers wonder how sure they must be before they are required to report suspected abuse. Most authorities agree that educators should report if they have any "reasonable" suspicion. As one court explained, the reporting laws are intended to have a "low threshold for reporting" and only a minimum level of accuracy. Moreover, a knowing failure to report can lead to a fine, jail sentence, or both. In short, teachers should err on the side of reporting.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

J. Eckenrode, M. Laird, and J. Doris. "School Performance and Disciplinary Problems Among Abused and Neglected Children." Developmental Psychology 29, no. 1 (January 1993): 53-62.

A. Green. "Children Traumatized by Physical Abuse." In S. Eth and R. Pynoos (eds.), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1985.

J. Herman. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

T. McIntyre. "The Teacher's Role in Cases of Suspected Child Abuse." Education and Urban Society 22, no. 3 (May 1990): 300-306.

S. Salzinger et al. "The Effects of Physical Abuse on Children's Social Relationships." Child Development 64, no. 1 (February 1993): 169-187.

G. Sorenson. "Sexual Abuse in Schools: Reported Cases from 1987-1990." Educational Administration Quarterly 27, no. 4 (November 1991): 460-480.