A group of more than 40 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle called on U.S. Education Sec. Betsy DeVos to issue guidance to educators on how to spot, handle and report child abuse concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The recent spate of stay-at-home orders have impacted education with schools seeing a dramatic shift to online learning, a reality that may carry well into the next fall school year. This means children are far less likely to be seen directly by teachers, other parents and coaches who may be able to spot signs of abuse and report it.
Child advocates and members of Congress are urging the nation’s federal education leader to issue local guidance that will set clear standards for how school systems can best utilize online learning platforms to keep students safe from harm..
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., helped lead the letter. Other members of the Florida delegation who signed the letter include U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., Ted Deutch, D-Fla., Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., Al Lawson, D-Fla., John Rutherford, R-Fla., and Frederica Wilson, D-Fla.
The letter is below.
Dear Secretary DeVos:
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our nation in a multitude of ways and exacerbated some of the most challenging and dangerous circumstances for children. As of May 15, 2020, 48 states, four U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia ordered or recommended to close school buildings for the rest of the 2019-2020 academic year. These orders impact approximately 45.1 million public school students. Some public health experts warn that we could face a resurgent second wave of the virus. If that were to occur, school building closures could remain a reality at a time when school would ordinarily resume in the fall.
Since cities and states instituted shelter-in-place restrictions and moved to online learning, children have lost access to essential state and government functions and services that often provide opportunities to identify abuse and to offer protection. School teachers, counselors, administrators, and other mandated reporters make up the majority of reports to state child abuse hotlines. Since schools have been closed, many states saw significant drops in these reports at the state and local level. For example, in Florida, the number of reports of suspected child abuse declined by 11% in March from the five-year average.
Also in March, for the first time ever, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s (RAINN) National Sexual Abuse Hotline had half of the requests for support made by minors; historically, minors represent roughly a third of hotline requests. Of minors who discussed coronavirus-related concerns, 67% identified their perpetrator as a family member and 79% said they were living with that perpetrator.
This data makes it abundantly clear that school closures and shelter-in-place orders, while necessary to fight the spread of this pandemic, are having dangerous unintended consequences on our nation’s children. As a society and as a government, we need to rise to meet this challenge and to enact additional safeguards to identify children in need of help and to give them guidance in seeking that help.
The Department of Education already issued guidance on several topics to help school systems navigate this crisis and meet the needs of students. I urge you to issue additional guidance that will set clear standards for how school systems can best utilize online learning platforms to keep students safe from harm. In particular, this guidance should encourage state Departments of Education to require the addition of a reporting function (via voice, online chat, email, or other technology, based on the capacity of each state) into their online learning platforms so that children can report abuse to their state child abuse hotlines. Teachers should also be directed to remind children that a student can report abuse to them and that teachers can provide immediate assistance to children who may be experiencing abuse.
When children are no longer interacting in-person with teachers, coaches and other outside adults, the prudent order to stay at home does not always result in staying safe. This added guidance will help ensure that shelter-in-place orders protect children – not their abusers.
Thank you for your attention to these concerns, I look forward to working with you to protect children during this national crisis.