Should abuse allegations against teachers be subject to a higher standard of proof?

By: - September 27, 2018 6:10 am

A group of lawmakers is weighing whether teachers merit an extra level of protection during child abuse investigations.

For most cases, an allegation is considered founded if child protective services investigators determine that the alleged abuse or neglect actually occurred based on the available evidence.

But if the alleged act took place within the scope of a school employee’s job, the investigator must go a step further and show that the employee acted with gross negligence or willful misconduct.

It’s essentially an additional hoop that child protective services must jump through to mark an allegation against a teacher or school employee as founded — which could cause the teacher to lose his or her license and prevent them from moving to another school. But it can lead to confusion among social workers about how the terms should be defined and what evidence would prove either gross negligence or willful misconduct, particularly in cases of sexual abuse.

CPS investigators report sexual abuse allegations to police, but handle administrative investigations involving a caretaker, such as a teacher.

The commission is currently accepting public comment on the issue until Nov. 6. It will vote on the proposed recommendations Nov. 20.

The study stems from a case in which a teacher accused of sexually abusing a student in Arlington was able to resign and get another job in a Maryland school. The commission studied the issue and made recommendations to the General Assembly to close reporting loopholes, such as requiring child protective services to notify school districts and the Department of Education when an allegation is founded.

In the process, the commission members also ordered their staff to take a broader look at the standards that Department of Social Services workers must follow when investigating teachers and other school employees.

A workgroup examined the extra burden of proof during two meetings this summer, which included representatives from social services as well as education advocates.

School advocates argue that higher standards are in place to protect teachers. A student could claim he or she was physically abused when the teacher was just doing his or her job, like breaking up a fight, for example.

“You need to take into account the unique situations and requirements we put teachers in,” said Tracey Bailey, state director of Virginia Professional Educators during a workgroup meeting. “I am much more sensitive to the idea that teachers today are the targets for vindictive and retaliatory allegations from students and from parents in a way I wouldn’t have expected.”

Carl Ayers, director of family services with the Department of Social Services, told the workgroup that the ultimate goal should be creating a standard that protects teachers from those sorts of accusations, while also protecting children.

“It’s a very complicated dance,” he said.

Rebecca Morgan, director of the Middlesex Department of Social Services, said the standards are confusing as they stand now, especially considering workforce challenges.

Virginia is unique in having the higher standard of proof for teachers, said Will Egen, senior legislative analyst for the commission, during a presentation earlier this month.

Other states don’t have the two-track system that Virginia does, though not all other states investigate cases in the same way, in using Department of Social Services child protective services staff.

One of the recommendations that the staff presented to the commission is to exempt cases of sexual abuse from the higher standards, which would clear up some of the confusion for social workers, while most of the recommendations focus on training for social workers and hearing officers, who hear appeals cases.

“These recommendations are very well intentioned in trying to absolutely ensure the highest standard of care for our kids, but there are a lot of stakeholders involved in these recommendations,” said Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Fairfax, during the commission’s last meeting earlier this month. “Folks who work at our school systems work daily with our kids and they don’t want some of their actions to be misinterpreted or mislabeled. So this is a very complex environment, and I think putting the emphasis on training was a really wise thing.”

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Katie O'Connor
Katie O'Connor

Katie, a Manassas native, has covered health care, commercial real estate, law, agriculture and tourism for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond BizSense and the Northern Virginia Daily. Last year, she was named an Association of Health Care Journalists Regional Health Journalism Fellow, a program to aid journalists in making national health stories local and using data in their reporting. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, where she was executive editor of The Flat Hat, the college paper, and editor-in-chief of The Gallery, the college’s literary magazine.