How Can Private Schools Prevent Physical and Sexual Abuse?

A New NAIS Guidebook Provides Strategies for Independent Schools

Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Rob Carr/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandals in the past few years at numerous New England boarding schools, top colleges like Penn State and at other schools nationwide, the National Association of Independent Schools has produced a handbook on how private schools, in particular, can identify and help abused and neglected children. This valuable resource also offers support regarding how schools can create programs to promote the safety of children.

The fifty-page handbook, entitled Handbook on Child Safety for Independent School Leaders by Anthony P. Rizzuto and Cynthia Crosson-Tower, can be purchased at the NAIS online bookstore. Dr. Crosson-Tower and Dr. Rizzuto are experts in the field of child abuse and neglect. Dr. Crosson-Tower has written many books on the subject, and she served on the Cardinal’s Commission for Child Protection of the Archdiocese of Boston and on the Implementation and Oversight Committee of the Archdiocese’s Office of Child Advocacy. Dr. Rizzuto formerly served as the director of the Office of Child Advocacy for the Archdiocese of Boston and as liaison to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and in addition to other state agencies.

Drs. Crosson-Tower and Rizzuto write that “Educators have a vital role in identifying, reporting, and preventing child abuse and neglect.” According to the authors, teachers and related professionals (including doctors, day-care workers, and others) report more than 50% of abuse and neglect cases to child protective services nationwide.

How Widespread is Child Abuse and Neglect?

As Drs. Crosson-Tower and Rizzuto report, according to the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in their 2010 report Child Maltreatment 2009, about 3.3 million referrals involving 6 million children were reported to child protective services across the nation. About 62% of those cases were investigated. Of the investigated cases, child protective services found that 25% involved at least one child who had been abused or neglected. Of cases that involved abuse or neglect, more than 75% of the cases involved neglect, 17% of the cases involved physical abuse, and about 10% of cases involved emotional abuse (the percentages add up to over 100%, as some children had more than one type of abuse). About 10% of the cases involved confirmed sexual abuse. The data suggest one in four girls and one in six boys under the age of 18 will experience some form of sexual abuse.

What Can Private Schools Do About Abuse?

Given the staggering reports about the prevalence of sexual abuse and neglect, it is imperative that independent schools take a role in identifying, helping, and preventing abuse. The Handbook on Child Safety for Independent School Leaders helps educators identify the signs and symptoms of different forms of child abuse and neglect. In addition, the guide assists educators in understanding how to report suspected child abuse. As the handbook states, all states have child protective agencies to which teachers can report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect. To research for information related to laws in different states about reporting suspected cases of child abuse and neglect, visit The Child Welfare Gateway.

The law of all states is that cases of suspected child abuse must be reported, even if it is not certain. It is important to note that in no state does a reporter of suspected abuse require proof of abusive or neglectful behavior. Many teachers are worried about reporting potential abuse because they fear being held liable if they are wrong, but in reality, there is also risk of being held liable for not reporting suspected abuse that is later reveal. It is important to remember that all states and the District of Columbia provide some immunity from liability for people who report child abuse in good faith.

The most troubling form of child abuse in schools involves abuse perpetrated by a member of the school community. The Handbook on Child Safety for Independent School Leaders provides guidelines to help educators in these situations and states that in such cases, “your best course of action is to follow state policy and procedures, which usually involve contacting CPS [Child Protective Services] immediately” (pp. 21-22). The handbook also includes a helpful reporting flow chart to guide schools in developing procedures that can easily be followed in the cases of suspected child abuse. The handbook also helps schools develop safety policies and procedures to ensure that all members of the school understand how to deal with cases of suspected abuse, and there are also guidelines about how to prevent childhood abuse through research-driven programs that teach safety skills to children.

The handbook concludes with an action plan to help independent schools put together comprehensive protocols to prevent and deal with abuse and to train staff on the school’s protocols. The guide is an invaluable tool for private school administrators who want to implement child abuse prevention plans in their schools.

Article edited by Stacy Jagodowski