Filmmaker and activist Angelina Jolie published an opinion piece in the LA Times this month that highlights an important – and often overlooked – consequence of COVID-19: child abuse is on the rise, but reports of abuse have plummeted. Jolie highlights two crucial facts: first, nearly 1 in 5 calls to child abuse hotlines are made by educators (making them the most frequent reporters of suspected abuse), and second, traditional child abuse prevention trainings simply don’t address recognizing child abuse in virtual classrooms.
“If schools remain physically closed, teachers may need training and support in identifying signs of abuse online.”
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of child abuse is difficult enough in physical classrooms – which is why nearly every public school teacher in the country is required to have some sort of child abuse prevention training regularly (in Delaware, public school teachers are required to have one hour of training every year). And while training is vital, a school must have clear policies in place that protect children – in online or physical classrooms. It starts with a clear policy establishing expectations for reporting child abuse and establishing boundaries that govern how educators and students interact. These clear policies and procedures apply to all interactions a teacher has with a student – whether on Zoom®, over text message, or in person. Best practice policies should inform training, and training should support best practice policies.
The Foundation’s workshop Protecting Children in Virtual Learning Environments is exactly the workshop Jolie is calling for. This 60-minute workshop addresses how policy can help educators establish healthy boundaries in an online environment with the students they teach. Participants learn the importance of policies and procedures around appropriate interactions with students in the virtual world.
Nine out of the ten largest school districts in the country are starting classes online this Fall. As they, and hundreds of smaller districts, seek to protect their students from abuse and neglect, they must also update their child protection policies. The sad reality is that an abused child will likely slip through the cracks without a concerted nationwide effort to align child protection policies and training with this new educational model.