By D&K’s School and Higher Education Law Team
All school employees are now required to report child abuse and neglect under a new state law and can face stiff penalties for failing to do so. The new law also requires that school boards train school employees to identify children who have been abused or neglected and about the laws and procedures governing the reporting of child abuse and neglect.
On November 23, 2011, the Governor signed 2011 Wisconsin Act 81 (Act 81) into law. It is effective December 9, 2011. Before this new law was enacted, Wis. Stat. §48.981(2)(a) obligated school teachers, school administrators, and school counselors to report suspected or threatened abuse or neglect to the county department of human services or social services, or to the sheriff or city, village, or town police department. The duty to report applied to school professionals who had reasonable cause to suspect that a child seen in the course of their professional duties had been abused or neglected; the duty to report also covered professional that had a reasonable belief that such a child has been threatened with abuse or neglect and that abuse or neglect would occur. As a result of Act 81, all school employees, including Educational Assistants, Bus Drivers, Food Service employees, clerical staff, custodial and maintenance workers, and coaches, are also obligated to report child abuse or neglect, if they have reasonable cause to suspect that such abuse has occurred, and any threats of abuse or neglect to the county department of human services or social services or to law enforcement.
The law continues to require a report only in situations when the victim of the abuse or neglect is a child that is seen in the course of the school employee’s professional duties. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has noted that the statutory language concerning “children seen in the course of professional duties” is not limited to the classroom. For example, if an employee is required to attend a school sponsored event as a monitor or chaperone, a child seen in that capacity would constitute a “child seen in the course of professional duties.”
A mandatory report of child abuse or neglect must be made immediately and DPI has indicated that there should be no delay in making a report for any reason. DPI does acknowledge that school employees may wish to consult with a professional who has clinical skills (e.g., pupil services professional) to assist in determining whether a report is required, but advises that while such consultation is acceptable, it cannot result in the delay of a report. Moreover, DPI reminds reporters that asking someone else to make a child abuse or neglect report does not absolve an employee of their legal responsibility to report.
Act 81 also expands the penalties for failing to report such abuse or neglect to all school employees. Thus, any school employee who fails to make a required report of child abuse or neglect could be penalized with a fine of not more than $1000 or imprisonment of not more than six months, or both.
In addition, school employees are entitled to confidentiality in making reports of child abuse or neglect. Consequently, while the reporter will generally be identified to the agencies receiving the report, no information about the identity of the reporter, such as name, job title, place of employment, etc., may be shared or disclosed with third parties, unless disclosure is authorized on other grounds.
Prior to Act 81, the Wisconsin Statutes prohibited employers from terminating the employment of mandatory reporters based, in part or in whole, on their action in making a report. Act 81 expands this protection to all school employees, and also expands the scope of the protection. Now, mandatory reporters who make a good faith report of suspected child abuse or neglect may not be discharged for doing so, but also may not be “disciplined or otherwise discriminated against in regard to employment, or threatened with any such treatment” for making a report. In addition, all school employees are now entitled to immunity from criminal and civil liability when the individual, in good faith, participates in reporting suspected child abuse or neglect.
The Wisconsin Legislature recognized that Act 81 imposes a new obligation on school employees who were not previously covered by the law. As a result, the law also mandates that school boards train every school district employee in its requirements. The training must address how to identify children who have been abused or neglected and review the laws and procedures governing the reporting of suspected or threatened child abuse or neglect. Such training must take place within the first six months after the employee starts working for the district and at least once every five years after the initial training.
Act 81 states that every employee must receive training “provided by the department,” but does not specify how this training requirement will be satisfied. DPI advises that initial training of all public school employees must occur no later than June 9, 2012. In order to support school districts’ implementation of the training obligation in Act 81, DPI will be taking the following steps by January 31, 2012:
- Two alternatives will be available to school districts to meet the new training requirement.
– A webcast, following which educators will be able to download a certificate to document their viewing.- A PowerPoint presentation with speaker notes that can be delivered by a local educator or county official in a school building in-service or other local professional development event.
- A second and optional webcast, recommended for school administrators and pupil services professionals, will provide more in-depth information about the school’s role in preventing child maltreatment.
- The DPI publication, “The School’s Role in Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect,” will be updated.
- A new home page on Child Abuse and Neglect will be established with links to the training noted above and other related resources at http://www.dpi.wi.gov/sspw/can.html.
The attorneys at Davis & Kuelthau, s.c., have experience training school employees about the laws and procedures governing the reporting of child abuse and neglect and will be providing supplemental training for school employees as well.
If you have any questions about this topic or if you wish to discuss mandatory reporting training for school employees, please contact your Davis & Kuelthau, s.c., attorney.