How school districts can keep students safe from abuse

Riverbend Elementary School. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Last month, a Juneau principal was placed on leave when questions were raised about how staff at his former school handled reports of student abuse. A pair of new lawsuits claim that families had brought concerns to the attention of the Wasilla school’s leaders years before action was taken.

Principal Scott Nelson’s name does not appear in the lawsuits filed last month against his former employer, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. Still, Juneau School District Director of Human Resources Darryl Smith said Nelson’s connection to the case was a distraction from student learning at Riverbend Elementary School, where Nelson has worked since the beginning of the school year.

“It kind of hindered the direction the school needs to go for the rest of the year,” said Smith. “So in order just to allow the educational process to keep happening in that school, we thought it was best to take the action that we did.”

Parents were notified of the decision by phone on Feb. 20.

The district hired Nelson last spring. Smith said at no point in the hiring process did the district find anything to raise concerns about Nelson’s commitment to student safety.

Smith described the Juneau School District’s hiring and vetting practices as “extensive.” The steps include a federal background check, rounds of interviews, and making plenty of phone calls — beyond a candidate’s listed references.

“It could be like, in the case of a school administrator, sometimes we’ll call the admin assistant in that building and talk to them a little bit. And then we may ask for names of other people that might be worth talking to,” said Smith.

If records and reference checks don’t turn up any red flags, there isn’t much other information available to school districts.

However, there are other steps districts can take during the hiring process to emphasize that student safety is taken very seriously.

Amy Russell is the executive director of the Children’s Justice Center, a child advocacy center in Clark County, Washington. She trains professionals around the country, including in Alaska, how to recognize and prevent child abuse.

She recommends districts include a pointed hypothetical question in their interview process.

She gave this question as an example: “If you had this situation that you were presented with, a child has alleged that one of your colleagues is offending against a child, what would you do?”

Russell said asking a question like this sends a strong signal to potential abusers: This is not a school where you can fly under the radar. It also encourages all staff to take reports — and their own observations — seriously.

All teachers and administrators in Alaska schools are required by law to report any suspected abuse to the state. But Russell said too often that reporting doesn’t happen. She has heard many stories, like the ones in the lawsuits, of staff dismissing concerns.

“They don’t want to think that they would be socially connected to an individual or an institution that would do that. And so the immediate thought is this disbelief: ‘No, that can’t possibly be what’s going on,'” Russell said.

But Russell is very clear on this: Teachers and staff don’t have to believe a claim in order to report it to authorities.

Smith said that’s exactly what he tells staff of the Juneau School District.

“It’s not your responsibility to decide. It’s your responsibility to report,” he said.

Both staff and students in the district receive training on abuse prevention. Smith said as the district enters hiring season, they’re already thinking about how to better use the interview process to screen out potential abusers and to send a message that Juneau schools are serious about keeping kids safe.

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