Teachers greeted with new child abuse reporting policies
Sometimes "prompt" isn't fast enough.
Reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect is one of those situations, says state Rep. Dell Kerbs, R-Shawnee.
Kerbs was the primary House author of a bill that changed Oklahoma law this year so that citizens now are required to report suspected child abuse or neglect "immediately" rather than just "promptly."
Reports are to be made to the Department of Human Services hotline — 1-800-522-3511.
Kerbs pointed to an alleged sexual assault in Bixby in the summer of 2017 as demonstrating the need for the change.
In that incident, four high school football players were accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old teammate with a pool cue in the home of then-Superintendent Kyle Wood, whose son was one of the players charged with second-degree rape by instrumentation in the assault. The superintendent later resigned.
Prosecutors said school leadership waited eight days to report what was first deemed "an alleged hazing incident."
Kerbs said that's too long.
The change from reporting promptly to immediately may not sound like much, but it is important because the word "promptly" provides some legal wiggle room as to how quickly suspected abuse or neglect must be reported, Kerbs said.
Kerbs believes using the word "immediately" removes that wiggle room.
"Immediately is just that: immediately," Kerbs said.
Lawmakers considered setting a 24-hour time limit for reporting suspected maltreatment, but child advocacy groups successfully pushed for the more restrictive language, said state Sen. Ron Sharp, one of the bill's Senate authors.
"We don't need schools to be involved in the investigative aspects," Kerbs said. "They need to be doing the job of teaching kids and doing the job the school is intended to do. Let DHS and the proper authorities deal with sorting those things out."
Similarly, church leaders, day care operators and business executives need to immediately report suspected child abuse and neglect to the proper authorities rather than trying to handle incidents in house, he said. The reporting requirement pertains to everyone, not just teachers, Kerbs noted.
Under the new law, teachers not only have an obligation to report suspected child abuse and neglect, they also have an obligation to report suspected abuse or neglect of students 18 and older to law enforcement.
Kerbs said that additional language was added to protect high school seniors who have turned 18 as well as individuals with learning disabilities who may be older.
Threat reports mandatory
Another new law passed by the Legislature this year makes it mandatory for teachers and other employees to notify law enforcement "of any verbal threat or act of threatening behavior which reasonably may have the potential to endanger students, school personnel or school property."
With Oklahoma schools back in session, teachers throughout the state are being reminded of the legal changes and their obligation to immediately report suspected abuse or neglect by calling the DHS hotline.
The state Education Department notified school districts of that and other legislative changes in something called the "4th Annual Red Banner Book."
School districts have been amending their child abuse reporting policies in response.
At a recent Edmond School Board meeting, Superintendent Bret Towne informed school board members of the child abuse reporting changes.
"It must be reported immediately," Towne said. "There is to be no talking to the supervisor first."
Towne said failure to do so could result in criminal prosecution of the employee for a misdemeanor offense. Edmond Schools have more than 2,600 employees, including teachers and support staff. The district's enrollment is 25,211.
Towne said calling the DHS hotline is just the first step an employee must take if they suspect child abuse or neglect.
The employee also must inform the principal of the campus and then document the incident using the Edmond Public School District's official form for reporting suspected child abuse. That form identifies the victim as well as what abuse is alleged. A copy of the report is to be immediately sent to the superintendent.
The school policy lists 15 descriptions of "child abuse and neglect," all outlined by Oklahoma statutes. Most of the guidelines involve forms of sexual abuse ranging from pornography to actual conduct involving a minor.
Towne said the school district would immediately post notices, in both English and Spanish, in highly visible places at all school campuses. The notices will include the DHS hotline number, he said.
Randy Decker, chief human resources officer for the district, said new employees already have been briefed on the policy changes.
Substitute teachers will be required to follow them, as well, Decker said. Board member Kathleen Duncan said the new policy took a strong approach to the problem.
While discussing the issue, board member Cynthia Benson asked if the district had a policy on reporting domestic abuse, and cited the case of Ohio State University head football coach Urban Meyer. Last month Meyer was suspended for three games after it was reported he mishandled domestic abuse allegations involving an assistant coach.
Edmond administrators said they were not aware of a policy on that issue applicable to the district.