If In Doubt, Call It Out: Child Abuse Reporting


If in Doubt, Call It Out: Child Abuse Reporting

Educators frequently check with us to ascertain whether a particular incident is a “mandatory report” under Nebraska’s child abuse reporting statute, section 28-711.  The reporting obligation in Nebraska’s statute comes from the criminal laws (Chapter 28), not the laws applying to schools (Chapter 79).  If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you now know why.

Many administrators have asked us about this story regarding a principal at an elementary school in Omaha who was criminally charged with failing to report suspected child abuse.  Other educators have asked about our standard policy after the World Herald editorial published an editorial encouraging school boards to review their policies relating to reporting child abuse and neglect.  Obviously OPS’s policy has gotten a lot of attention, but the editorial also took some shots at reporting policies at other area schools.  

We want our readers to be clear on your reporting and policy obligations, so let’s get to it.

All “school employee[s]” have a child abuse reporting obligation.  Section 28-711 makes “any...person” in Nebraska a mandatory reporter, and the statute names “school employee[s]” specifically.  That means all schools should make the reporting obligations clear to all staff, including teachers, non-certificated staff, community member coaches, and even volunteers.  Here’s the actual wording of the statute:

When any...school employee...has reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse or neglect or observes such child being subjected to conditions or circumstances which reasonably would result in child abuse or neglect, he or she shall report such incident or cause a report of child abuse or neglect to be made to the proper law enforcement agency or to the [DHHS]... toll-free number.... Such report may be made orally by telephone with the caller giving his or her name and address, shall be followed by a written report, and to the extent available shall contain the address and age of the abused or neglected child, the address of the person or persons having custody of the abused or neglected child, the nature and extent of the child abuse or neglect or the conditions and circumstances which would reasonably result in such child abuse or neglect, any evidence of previous child abuse or neglect including the nature and extent, and any other information which in the opinion of the person may be helpful in establishing the cause of such child abuse or neglect and the identity of the perpetrator or perpetrators. Law enforcement agencies receiving any reports of child abuse or neglect under this subsection shall notify the department pursuant to section 28-718 on the next working day by telephone or mail.

If you haven’t shared the specific requirement with your staff recently, you should.  Feel free to hit “forward” on this post or at least include it in your next staff inservice, along with a review of your policy.  And on that note...

Check your policy.  The OWH editorial criticized the Omaha Public Schools policy for stating that school employees should report suspected child abuse or neglect within 24 hours.  The editorial staff correctly pointed out that there is no 24-hour reporting window in the statute, and there are circumstances where waiting 24 minutes may be too much.  However, we freely admit that our standard policy used to contain an outside limit of 24 hours to make a report, but only in situations where the school needed to do some rudimentary investigation to clarify whether any reporting obligation had been triggered.  We decided to change that in 2016 based on some cases we were working on at the time. (For all KSB Policy Service subscribers, be sure you have the most recent version! We’d be happy to send it to you if you want to double check, or you can log into the policy service page here.)

Allow all staff to report to the Hotline or law enforcement.  Some older policies simply require staff to report suspected abuse to their upline administrator, and then the administrator is required to report the abuse.  We think that should change. Our preferred policy now contains these 4 primary principles:

  1. The staff member must report to both (a) law enforcement or DHHS, and (b) to their building principal.  The school may have additional reporting or state and federal law responses--such as Title IX--to consider after a report is made.

  2. If the principal calls in suspected abuse or neglect, the principal will inform all staff members with knowledge that he or she has made the report.

  3. Nothing in the policy should be viewed to hinder any school employee from making their own report to comply with the staff member’s own reporting obligations.

  4. If in doubt, report.  Staff can consult with their administrators to talk through the reporting obligations, but the directive to all staff should be to err on the side of reporting.

Once case out of Kentucky (Commonwealth v. Allen) held that a teacher and counselor could be criminally liable for failure to report child abuse, even if they reported it to their building principal pursuant to a standard practice at the school.  Much like our statute in Nebraska, the Kentucky Supreme Court said that multiple reports are expected on the face of the statute, even if they are entirely duplicative. All staff should make the report, and other school employees cannot assume a report will be made by their upline administrator.

We want to note that Nebraska’s statute does permit a school employee to “cause” a report to be made rather than actually making one.  We believe that means a teacher or other staff member is relieved of their reporting obligation as long as they know for certain that their administrator has made the report and included their name in it as someone with information about the alleged incident leading to the report.  That’s why our policy requires the principal to tell staff if the principal has made the report. However, all school staff should always have the flexibility to make their own report, even if they know their information has already “cause[d] a report to be made.”

There are other reporting obligations.  Keep in mind that the child abuse report may be the first of several which need to be made.  School principals must also report any known or suspected violation of the Nebraska Criminal Code by a student, which the county attorney for that county wants to be reported to law enforcement.  That comes from section 79-293.  

The Nebraska Department of Education’s Rule 27, which contains the professional standards for certificate holders, also contains mandatory reporting obligations for private (section 003) and public (004) certificate holders if the misconduct involves a fellow certificate holder.  For example, in the situation where a staff member sexually abuses a student, there would be child abuse and NDE reporting obligations.

Now is the time!  If you haven’t reviewed your abuse reporting policies and procedures recently, you should.  The same goes for training staff on reporting obligations. If you aren’t sure whether your policy and practice complies with state law and generally best practices, or if you want help thinking through the best way to train your staff, you should consult with your school’s attorney or call Karen, Steve, Bobby, Coady, or Mandy.