Child Sexual Abuse: An Educator’s Guide

You are an educator and some time during the school day, a student comes to you and says that he or she has been sexually abused. If receiving that news isn’t devastating enough, he or she tells you that it was a colleague or other school staff who was the alleged abuser. What do you do?
Educators play an important role in the lives of children who come to school everyday, and the children who trust and feel most safe with the adults at school, will often make personal disclosures. Those revelations offer insights into your students and their lives, both in and out of school.
Child sexual abuse{CSA} has serious and multiple negative consequences. Educators must be prepared to respond to disclosures of this nature. When a child alleges abuse by a colleague, we are challenged to determine truthfulness and the appropriate role to take in this situation. I get it! You don’t want to believe that a fellow staff member, someone with whom you work, could actually breach any trust, compromise safety, and take advantage of a child in that way. Anger, disbelief, fear and the desire to defend your colleague are understandable initial responses. With serious consequences for the child who may be ostracized, rejected or have increasing mental health difficulties, an educator’s role, as a professional and mandated reporter, is to protect the child.
Skepticism is more likely when students have had prior academic, emotional or behavior problems, and unfortunately students with such vulnerabilities are most likely to become the targeted victims of sexual abuse. Research has shown that children who are disbelieved or unsupported after sexual abuse disclosures have worse long-term mental health outcomes. They are more at risk of experiencing post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, and developing negative self-images.
Educators are not personally responsible for investigating the truth regarding any allegations. Educators do have two very important roles:

REPORT Each state has reporting laws, and  educators are mandated reporters-mandated to report disclosures or reasonable suspicions of child sexual abuse to Child Protective Services. There is likely an established protocol and procedures to help you in this process. Failure to report can have serious consequences for you and your school, and more importantly, the child. Mandated reporters can lose their licenses and/or face criminal charges for failing to report.

SUPPORT Provide practical and emotional support to children who allege sexual abuse by a colleague, while they continue to attend school with as much safety and comfort as possible, under the circumstances. Parents school personnel and the student should discuss the creation of an environment free from judgment and embarrassing questions.

You can ensure physical, emotional and social safety in these ways:

  • During your interactions with the child and other students, convey neutrality, yet acceptance regarding the allegations, no matter your personal feelings about it.
  • Validating difficult feelings shows your emotional support of students. If a student expresses anger, you can respond with,” I see that you are very angry.” This type of mirroring and clarifying shows that you acknowledge the student’s emotional state. You hear them, and don’t judge them because of their feelings.
  • If the abuse occurred in the school, refer the child to an outside setting for trauma-focused assessment and treatment rather than providing mental health services in the school.
  • At all times, maintain confidentiality.
If other students find out about the allegations, they will probably have strong reactions. They will likely either side with the student who made the allegations or disbelieve and bully him/her. Children should be directed to a professional to ask questions, express their feelings, and  help them to sort this out.
Educators can also take additional steps, such as:
  • CREATE a safe learning environment for students by reviewing school policies to ensure students are protected from verbal or physical threats or any form of harassment.
  • Discuss with students the effects of social media and cyberbullying. Let them know that when someone discloses personal information about a student online, they place everyone at risk.

Though you can’t control what students say or do outside of school, inform students that if this incident receives wide media coverage, they are better served and protected by being silent and not responding to requests for information or comments. Members of the media  may approach educators, as well, and the same rule applies, at least until the case has been formally concluded. Prohibit students from communicating with the media during  school hours and while on campus.

As the proper professionals work to resolve this alleged misdeed[s], and work to ensure student safety, restore trust of the parents, students, and the community-at-large, the educational staff must remember why they  chose a career in education. Whether working in a school was an accidental decision, an economic necessity or a deliberate career choice, while you’re here, your first duty is to protect the children, respect their families, become familiar with the community and commit to empower all those whose lives will be positively impacted by a quality education.

Finally, sexual misconduct is a horrible crime no matter the perpetrator, and the involvement of children is far worse. Sexual abuses constitute another form of bullying, and no one wants to believe that the bully is a teacher or anyone working in a school. To learn that any such act involves an educator, whether alleged or substantiated, professional ‘courtesy’ should not prevent mandated reporters from honoring a moral or professional code of ethics. Your duty is to protect the children first- even if the allegations are proven false.  It must be reported, as it is far better to err on the side of caution, rather than failing to take action in the best interest of a child.


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