2021 | Schools

Return to school means more chances for students to report child abuse

After dropping to two reports per day, average back up to about 23

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As students return to in-person classes after more than a year of virtual learning, Montgomery County Public Schools leaders are seeing an uptick in reported cases of possible child abuse and neglect.

In December, after nearly a year of online classes, MCPS officials said they were concerned about the significant drop in possible abuse cases referred by employees to Child Protective Services.

It was unlikely, they said, that abuse and neglect had dropped off. Instead, they feared that virtual classes removed critical opportunities for children to share information with trusted adults, or for employees to easily recognize signs of abuse.

Between March 15, 2020, and June 30, 2020, 200 suspected incidents were reported through MCPS. There were 1,132 suspected cases reported during the same time period in 2019, according to MCPS data.

Pre-pandemic, there were an average of 27 reports of possible child abuse each day in MCPS, according to data provided to Bethesda Beat by the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office. While students were in virtual classes, the district averaged about two reports per day.

Since students returned to buildings, the average number of daily reports has again increased to about 23, according to the State’s Attorney’s Office and MCPS data.

“People initially are alerted to that (increase) and are disturbed,” MCPS Director of Student Welfare and Compliance Greg Edmundson said during a school board committee meeting on Thursday. “To me, it’s a great sign that we are supporting our students where and when we need to.”

The majority of reports are “screened out,” meaning there was insufficient evidence of abuse or neglect. Edmundson said about one of every 10 reports are “taken up” by Child Protective Services.

“We didn’t wipe out child abuse or child neglect in 2020. It just became hidden during the pandemic,” State’s Attorney John McCarthy said in a written statement to Bethesda Beat from his office on Thursday.

He praised efforts implemented by MCPS during virtual classes to help employees better recognize and address possible cases of abuse.

While school buildings were closed, all MCPS employees were trained in how to recognize and report signs of child abuse in a virtual format, according to district leaders.

Some teachers taught students “code words” they could use if they needed help, which would signal to them that they should contact the student when the parent or caregiver was not around, according to Lauren DeMarco, director of public affairs for the State’s Attorney’s Office. That worked in several cases, she said.

The district also annually provides “personal body safety lessons” for all students. For the youngest students, the lessons include identifying which areas of their body are private and “whether a touch is uncomfortable,” according to the MCPS website. It also teaches them how to tell an adult about “uncomfortable touches.”

The lessons evolve as students get older. Middle and high school students, for example, are also taught about the impact of abuse and how to support other people who have been abused.

“We applaud these efforts by Montgomery County Public Schools,” McCarthy said in the statement. “With a little bit of education and pre-warning we can prevent some children from becoming victims, and if they are victims, provide them with a road map of how to get help and protection.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com