This is the first in a three-part series on how to identify and respond to potential abuse by school employees.
PART 1: HOW DO I FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED?
Abuse of a student by school staff is very rare, but when there is a suspicion, a host of questions arise, especially if your child has difficulty communicating. The first part of the series offers ways that parents can ascertain whether abuse occurred.
Complaints by Child
A child may complain that a teacher or aide hurt her. If possible, there should be detailed questions about what happened, when, where and who was involved. Ask if the child can identify witnesses. All information should be carefully documented at the time of the questions.
There should be consideration of your child’s ability to express herself accurately and whether there may be ulterior motives. The child’s track record for telling the truth or manipulating is a major factor in any investigation.
Major changes in behavior may be a sign of trauma, particularly for non-verbal children. Obtaining and reviewing copies of behavior logs should be carefully reviewed. If there is a significant change, you should begin to make inquiries and, if there are unanswered questions or unsatisfactory explanations, convene the IEP team. All contacts should be documented, including a summary of the content of any conversation.
Any sign of injury should be documented with photographs and, if serious should be evaluated by medical personnel. You should conduct careful questioning of your child along the lines reviewed above.
You have a right to access school-based incident reports which involve your child. If there is police involvement, access to police investigation is limited. You should determine whether other investigatory bodies, such as a county board of developmental disabilities, Office of Civil Rights, or Ohio Department of Education have conducted investigations. If so, it may be possible to get access to their reports, depending on the agency policies.
If you have a strong relationship with school staff, such as an aide or a bus driver, you may be able to get information about what the staff have observed.
In those very rare instances where abuse is occurring, other parents may have developed similar concerns. Open communication among parents can be a helpful source for confirming improprieties in a school setting.
Parents sometime put recording devices in a child’s clothing or backpack so they can hear firsthand what is occurring. This approach carries risks which should be assessed before using such an approach.
Ohio’s has a “one-party consent” law which means that it is not a crime to intercept or record any oral communication if one party to the conversation consents. Ohio Rev. Code § 2933.52 (B)(4).
This means that if a parent secretly records a one-on-one meeting with a teacher, the recording is legal and the parent is not subject to legal sanctions.
There are two problems with putting a device on your child to make secret recordings:
- The “one party consent” law does not cover someone who is not aware that she is carrying a recording device. This issue can be addressed by making the child aware of the recording, but this creates a risk of the child telling others or otherwise interfering with the process.
- School policy often prohibits recording during school hours without permission. This could lead to discipline.
There are cases which have held that recordings which are improperly obtained may be used in lawsuits. See e.g. Kettering v. Hollen, 64 Ohio St.2d 232, 235, 416 N.E.2d 598, 600 (1980); 1994 Ohio Op. Att’y Gen. No. 94-097 (Dec. 30, 1994)
Districts often use security videos in public areas for safety reasons. There is at least one case where the abuse by staff was captured on video. Videos which include images of students are not public records, but may be obtained in some circumstances.
Part Two will review informal methods for response if, after your investigation, you believe that abuse has occurred.
Part Three will look at some legal cases where parents have alleged staff abuse.