Michele Booth Cole is executive director of Safe Shores – The DC Children’s Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that serves child victims of abuse, and was a member of the Prince George’s County Public Schools Student Safety Task Force.
Just when you think the dystopic world of child abuse cannot get any more outrageous, the news of the Russell County (Va.) School Board’s response to child sexual abuse proves you wrong. A janitor at Lebanon Elementary School pleaded guilty to 150 counts of aggravated sexual battery, carnal knowledge and sodomy in connection with the abuse of four boys, two of whom were students at the elementary school. Yet, the school board denies responsibility.
This preposterous and reckless response by an institution entrusted with the education and care of children sends a frightening message to students and families as well as an open invitation to child predators. Predators look for opportunities to knit themselves into the fabric of communities where children abound. The school district seems to be flashing a neon “Welcome” sign to those who would harm kids.
For the Russell County School Board to disavow its central role in protecting children is just flat-out wrong, legally and morally. Schools by the very virtue of their mission should be among the safest spaces for children in our society. Indeed, schools and educators have a duty of care to act with a reasonable degree of watchfulness, attention, caution and prudence whenever students are in their charge. How could a reasonable person, who is responsible for other people’s children more than seven hours a day, five days a week, not take basic steps to make the environment safer? Fundamental protection of students means conducting effective background checks and ensuring all faculty and staff are provided with instruction in recognizing, responding to and preventing child sexual abuse. Further, this duty of care requires adults who suspect that a child is being harmed to report their suspicions to law enforcement or child protective services.
Children deserve to be safe in schools. They must actually be and feel safe to learn. Schools have a mission-based moral and legal obligation to ensure safe environments by preventing and reporting child abuse.
Research on adverse childhood experiences tells us that child abuse can inflict lifelong damage on victims if the adults and systems that are supposed to come to children’s aid don’t step in or, worse, intentionally choose not to know. Both faculty and leadership at Lebanon Elementary spotted plenty of signs that the janitor was abusing at least one boy — from catching the janitor and the boy hidden in a dark room, to seeing the janitor give the boy money, to knowing the boy moved into the janitor’s home, to learning of an official child abuse complaint against the janitor. Any one of these events would be a red flag to any responsible adult who has had basic training in preventing child abuse and/or who simply has any concern about their students’ well-being.
The Lebanon case underscores the imperative for schools and all places that serve children to have and enforce effective child abuse prevention policies, which include a code of conduct for interpersonal interactions and training for all personnel on how to recognize signs of abuse, how to report abuse and how to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place.
One in 10 children in the United States will be sexually abused by his or her 18th birthday. The only reason this shocking statistic persists is because too many adults are shirking their duty. We can stop the victimization of children. It starts with accepting our responsibility to create, nurture and monitor safer environments for all children.
We can only hope that the court requires the Russell County School Board to rise to its duty. Whatever the outcome, the importance of this case can’t be overstated because we’ve hit rock bottom when any school not only turns a blind eye to child abuse but also willfully denies its responsibility to protect students from the crime. Every adult should be outraged by the school board’s unprincipled stance and the potential for a dangerous legal precedent that would further endanger children. Either we take action or admit that children aren’t really as important as many claim.