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Student Victims of Trauma and the Laws Protecting Them
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Sunday January 01, 2017
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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Domestic Violence
A teacher tells you one of her students is traumatized after seeing her father beat her mother the night before. Neither you nor the teacher is sure if you need to report this as a child abuse report. What do you do?
Witnessing domestic violence can result in emotional difficulties similar to those of children who are direct victims of abuse. However, the statutes for reporting these types of incidences are far less clear than for other situations of child abuse. The legal system has begun to recognize that children who witness domestic violence are victims of child abuse, and a number of states have statutes addressing the issue of children who witness domestic violence in their homes.

The school counselor and teacher in this scenario should consult Child Protective Services, explain the situation and find out if it is reportable under state law. Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington and West Virginia have varying laws addressing the offense of perpetrating domestic violence in the presence of a child.

In 13 states (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Ohio, Oregon and Washington), additional sentencing penalties are considered when an act of domestic violence is committed in the presence of a child. In five states (Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Utah), committing domestic violence in the presence of a child is a crime that may be charged separately in addition to the act of domestic violence. Illinois, Louisiana and Nevada require perpetrators of domestic violence to pay for any counseling a child victim may require. Indiana requires that visitation of a noncustodial parent who has been convicted of domestic violence in the presence of his or her child be supervised for at least one year and not more than two years following the act of domestic violence.

Laws aside, ethically school counselors can do a number of things to support children who witness domestic violence. Supporting children of domestic violence at school, helping families find resources and placing the child with an understanding teacher or school mentor are just a few of the ways school counselors can provide these children with a safe haven. The Department of Justice is but one of dozens of resources to help school counselors find ways to support children who witness domestic violence.
Homeless or Inconsistent Housing
A family was evicted from their home and are doubling up with relatives and enrolling their children in your school. They plan to move back to their home school when housing becomes available. What are some advocacy steps for this family?
Sharing housing with others due to loss of housing, economic hardship or similar reasons meets one of the conditions defining homelessness under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. This federal act protects the right of homeless children and entitles this family to remain in their home school with transportation being furnished from their temporary housing. Since this family will return to their former neighborhood school it may well be in the children’s best interest to have the continuity and stability of being transported each day back to their home school.
All students need to feel safe at school. When students believe they are in a safe school environment they do better academically and behaviorally. There is ample legal muscle in federal and state legislation to give school officials support to address bullying.

Some federal civil rights statutes the Office of Civil rights oversees make some acts of bullying a violation of a student’s civil rights and require school officials to respond. If the bullying is based on race, color, sex, national origin or disability then this is a civil rights violation. Statutes protecting a student’s civil rights include:
  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of one’s disability
  • Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which also prohibits discrimination on the basis of one’s disability
Every state has a law or statewide policy defining bullying and authorizing school officials to take appropriate action to stop it.
Physical/Sexual Abuse or Abandonment and Neglect
Brianne comes to you and asks for your help in telling her mother “something serious.” When her mother arrives Brianne reveals to you both that she is being sexually abused by her uncle (her mother’s brother). After a lengthy discussion it is decided that Brianne’s mother will be the one to call Child Protective Service and the police. Seven days later a teacher talks to you about calling in sexual abuse for Brianne, and you learn that Brianne came to her because her mother never reported the abuse. Will you lose your certificate for not reporting? Your job?
This all-too-real situation recently happened with a veteran school counselor. The school counselor knew his legal obligation, but he got emotionally involved with the family and lost his objectivity. He could see how distraught this mother was for her child and how miserable she was in the knowledge of what her child had endured and how that this was going to tear the family apart. When Brianne’s mother convincingly explained that it would be better for Brianne if she saw her mother taking charge and handling the situation with authorities, the school counselor acquiesced.

State statutes mandate educators in all states to report suspected abuse under penalty of criminal charges. Federal law requires school counselors to report any reasonable suspicion of abuse, even in the absence of hard evidence. State-specific information about child abuse reporters, policies, hotline numbers and level of incidence are available at www.childwelfare.gov. When there is statutory rape, call Child Protective Services, and if directed to do so call the police and alert your principal/supervisor. For a mandated reporter to behave otherwise is to risk spending time in jail, lose one’s certificate and/or pay a fine.

No school counselor is immune from slips in judgment because in our profession we get emotionally involved. School counselors have to step back, consult and seek supervision. This was a highly effective school counselor who made a major misjudgment that no school counselor can afford to make. This lapse in judgment can end a career and, more grievously, prolong a child’s abuse.
Parent Incarcerated
The registrar tells you of a request from an incarcerated father for the educational records of Rob, his child. The registrar has already called Rob’s mother, who told her not to give the father any information. The registrar is now concerned that she may not be able to honor the mother’s request and asks your advice. What do you tell her?
Unless there is a court order specifically severing the father’s rights, then school officials cannot honor the mother’s request. If the mother explains that Rob’s father is incarcerated due to the abuse of his children, then the courts would have limited his rights. In this instance, the onus is on the mother to bring the school a court order with a raised seal with an active date. If the mother explains plausible extenuating circumstances as to why she does not have a court order, school officials might consider helping her with a call to legal aid if she and her children need protection in the form of legal documents. Keeping the lines of communication open between Rob and his incarcerated father is something the court has to determine, and it is not for school officials to decide if Rob’s father should be shut off from information about his son.

Rob’s father has case law, federal law and ASCA Ethical Standards ensuring his rights to be involved with his son. An example of case law can be found in Page, Petitioner, v. Rotterdam-Mohonasen Central School District (1981) in which the court vested a noncustodial parent with his rights to preserve his relationship with his child. The court in the Page case stated, “Educators and school districts are charged with the duty to act in the best educational interests of the children committed to their care, and although it may cause some inconvenience, those interests dictate that educational information be made available to both parents of every school child fortunate enough to have two parents interested in his welfare.”

Federal support comes in the form of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which states: “An educational agency or institution shall give full rights under the act to either parent, unless the agency or institution has been provided with evidence that there is a court order, state statute or legally binding document relating to such matters as divorce, separation or custody that specifically revokes these rights.”

ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors further support both parents’ rights to be involved.  
School counselors are proactive in identifying trauma victims, but the list of trauma-inducing life events is long. Despite best efforts school counselors will never know all the students in their charge who have been affected by traumatic events, but by having knowledge of federal and state laws and by employing proactive approaches, school can provide a refuge against the pain of trauma.
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D., is a professor at the University of North Florida and chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached at cstone@unf.edu