Teachers Becoming Watchdogs to Spot Child Abuse Signs

Times Staff Writer

When she is trying to persuade teachers to quickly call police at the slightest sign of child abuse, Shayla Lever talks about the girl who sleeps with a piece of broken glass “because she’s afraid she’s going to be molested like her sister was.”

Or she may recall the regret of a teacher who chose not to report her suspicion that a mother had blinded her child in one eye. Believing that the mother was being “rehabilitated,” the teacher kept her silence. “You know the story,” Lever said. “Now he’s totally blind.”

As director of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s child abuse office, Lever has tried for six years to persuade teachers to become aggressive watchdogs for indications of battering, molesting or emotional abuse.

It has been a frustrating battle: Abused children often give subtle cues, not declarations of their abuse, while teachers prefer to delay action until they are sure something is wrong.

In addition, Lever has had to do her cajoling from a small, bureaucratically anonymous platform, the district’s Child Abuse--Recognize and Eliminate program, which trains teachers to detect and report abuse. Money limitations have allowed the training to be offered at only 36 of the district’s 540 campuses.


But now, thanks to one well-publicized molesting case, Lever and her crusade have suddenly become critical in school district efforts to report child abuse to authorities.

In response to disclosures that a school principal and several administrators waited for more than a year to report accusations that a teacher was molesting pupils, an embarrassed Board of Education last month took unprecedented steps to prevent such lapses.

Board members voted to distribute detailed instructions to all employees about the state’s child abuse reporting law, which requires any “child care custodian” who has knowledge or “reasonable suspicion” of child abuse to immediately call police and follow the call with a written report within 36 hours. Failure is punishable by six months in jail, a $500 fine or both.

The board ordered seminars on the reporting law for administrators.

It ordered all principals to devise reporting procedures for their campuses and sign statements certifying that they had discussed them with their staff.

And finally, Supt. Harry Handler’s annual televised address to district employees on Monday was expanded to include remarks by Lever.

It is the kind of attention that Lever has long been hoping would be paid to the role schools can play in detecting child abuse. “It’s been literally criminal how many children have gone unidentified,” she said.

Calls to Lever and her four-member staff from teachers and administrators wanting more information about reporting have increased dramatically, to about 60 a day from 20 last year.

However, the district’s increased emphasis on reporting is also thrusting teachers and administrators into a difficult dilemma, according to educational and child abuse experts, who note that the state’s reporting requirement has rarely been enforced.

A teacher now confronted by a seemingly innocuous incident or comment that might suggest abuse faces the agony of balancing his doubts with the need to legally protect himself by calling police.

School district officials have sternly advised employees to err on the side of reporting.

“You cannot be Mr. Nice Guy or Nice Gal,” Associate Supt. for School Operations Sid Thompson warned 200 regional administrators last week at a meeting to discuss compliance with the state law.

“You can’t investigate, you can’t go running around to tell whether it’s true or false. That’s the process . . . no witnesses, no calling in the class and writing down statements. Make the report. It’s a hard thing to do, but that’s what you have to do,” said Thompson, one of several district officials who has testified before the Los Angeles County Grand Jury, which is investigating why district administrators failed to promptly tell police of reports that former 68th Street School teacher Terry Bartholome had molested students.

Bartholome, who has pleaded innocent, is facing trial on charges of molesting 17 elementary school girls.

Wayne Johnson, president of United Teachers of Los Angeles, said, teachers are “terribly concerned that they might not be aware of child abuse and it will come back to haunt them.”

Johnson criticized the district for emphasizing reporting but failing to educate teachers on how to spot signs of child abuse.

“What we can’t provide in this short amount of time is what is child abuse,” Lever said. “I feel like I’m spending a tremendous amount of time saying to people, ‘You must stop at a red light,’ but not having the time to explain what red is.”

Moreover, many teachers are fearful that their own innocent actions may be reported as abuse by colleagues seeking to legally protect themselves under the state reporting law.

Thus anxious school employees are asking questions like: Is it physical abuse if a teacher scratches a boy’s arm while breaking up a fight? Is it emotional abuse if a teacher orders a disruptive fourth-grader to stand in a corner? Is it sexual abuse if a group of rambunctious sixth-graders run through the playground, grabbing and flipping up the skirts of several girls?

Lever said she is concerned that if police are deluged by child abuse reports of this nature, the issue will become trivialized and “the kids who are really mistreated will slip through the cracks again.”

District officials have emphasized that the state reporting law protects teachers who file abuse reports by making them virtually immune from civil suits brought by people who believe they have been wrongfully accused.

Lever said that despite the anxiety, liberal reporting must be encouraged for the sake of abused children. “If you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” she said during a lecture to a group of teachers earlier this year. “But if you’re not wrong, you might save a life.”

The filing of an abuse report “really isn’t saying someone is guilty until proven innocent,” she said. “Reporting is not telling on anyone. It is telling for someone. A report is a cry for help on behalf of the child.”