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October 1997 | Volume 55 | Number 2
Schools as Safe Havens
In the face of discouraging and overwhelming facts about child abuse and neglect, teachers should not only report cases of child abuse, but also help children become resilient.
Can schools provide a safe haven for children who are hurt and neglected at home? Can teachers make a substantial difference in such children's lives? Because I know we can, I teach a course in child abuse issues, for teachers renewing or seeking certification. Agreeing to such an assignment meant grappling with my own history and giving back to other teachers what a progression of good teachers gave me. It meant asking already overburdened teachers to share my conviction that confronting the enormous waste and havoc of abusive relationships, and in particular their effects on the children we teach, is the right thing to do. It is also within our power.
Teachers come to my class already discouraged about the topic of child abuse. They don't need to be told that of every six cases of abuse reported to authorities, only one will receive more than passing attention. They can already guess that, for every six cases reported, 18 go unreported.
Some of my students say they are expecting to gain nothing from the course but a deepened sense of helplessness. Most have tried at least once to intercede on behalf of an abused child, only to be stonewalled or taken lightly. Recent studies (see National Child Rights Alliance 1997) suggest that two-thirds of teacher-initiated reports may still go no farther than the principal's desk.
What can I teach people who already believe there is not much point in trying? First, we look at statistics and case histories that demonstrate the enormity and breadth of a devastating social problem that crosses socioeconomic and cultural groups. Then we learn what to look for, what to say to the disclosing child, when and how to report to the authorities. And then I have to tell the teachers that more than two-thirds of the children who desperately need help are masquerading as normal so convincingly that their abuse will go completely undetected (see Myers 1994; Rush 1980).
We share stories about agonizingly slow responses from overwhelmed social service agencies. We hold up to the light some shameful skeletons in public education's own closet: A coach has an affair with a girl in his charge. A principal administers whacks with a paddle. A sarcastic teacher undermines a student's already fragile sense of self. We note that these things still happen with appalling regularity.
After a couple of hours of this, most students wish they were home in front of the fire, or playing with their own kids.
What keeps me offering the class is a hope that I can engender some optimism and new resolve. It's not that I believe that teachers, even teachers united together, can solve the problem, or that reporting suspected child abuse always leads to an improved situation for the child, or that it's possible to intervene in every case.
But teachers can make a huge difference. Teachers can provide an effective counterbalance to the effects of an abusive home. It does not require special heroism. My challenge is to help teachers persevere, to keep their hope alive, by focusing on children's capacity for resilience and how we can promote it.
Because of that focus, many teachers express their surprise that they leave the class feeling rejuvenated and optimistic. Inevitably, however, some leave as hopeless as they came. The cause is usually one of the following defensive attitudes:
If I help, I'll end up having to be a witness, or the target of retaliation, or the catalyst that brings more abuse down on the child's head. It's really not my business, anyway.
Hug regularly. Hug everyone who likes to be hugged. Hug in plain sight. And if anyone questions your doing it, I'll back you 100 percent.
When actual survivors of the kinds of horror stories we love to hate insist on speaking their unspeakable truths—truths like, "I am forever changed, diminished"; "I did not deserve this," we desperately try to tune them out. We silently accuse the tellers of refusing to heal or of exaggerating for effect. We decide that trauma was somehow earned. Trauma stories are inherently unbelievable. We listeners bring to the listening a desperate hope that what we are about to hear didn't really happen.
The public school system itself generates barriers to addressing the problem of child abuse. Our preoccupation with high standards, measures, and accountability is a case in point. Raising the academic performance bar without also addressing students' affective needs does nothing to build children's capacities to aim high. Children who are victims of abuse need encouragement and a high level of support in school to be creative, to be problem solvers, decision makers, communicators, and team members—in short, to become full participants in a democratic society.
We must not make higher standards a new stumbling block for children preoccupied with personal hurts—the downshifted kids Renate Nummela Caine describes (Pool 1997), too threatened by circumstances at home to respond to schooling in healthy ways. Knowing we will teach what we decide to measure, we must ask ourselves, Who is measuring affective survival skills? Where in the curriculum is resilience training? Children who come to school from extreme turmoil—and an estimated one-third of all children do—especially need to learn social skills. When we teach these things, we affirm for these children that there are alternatives to rage, violence, and despair.
Asked for her solution to teen pregnancy, drug use, and crime, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund once answered with a single word: Hope. Hope is a minimum prerequisite to academic and career success. When our curriculum includes communication and conflict management strategies, we inspire abused children to break the cycle.
Many teachers in my child abuse class are already unwitting heroes, doing without fanfare the things that help children who are hurting.
The same teachers also demand rigor and achievement, understanding how greatly academic success contributes to resilience. They are aware that both their teaching and their personal influence can save lives. They offer students help in making wise choices. They offer content-related topics relevant to students' developmental levels, cultural backgrounds, and the world of work. They encourage students to learn to work together.
These teachers understand that, for many marginalized students, programs in art and music, auto mechanics, Future Farmers of America, athletics, clubs, and encounters with nature like Outdoor School are life-altering experiences. And when such programs are threatened by shifts in funding priorities, these teachers sound the alarm.
As a survivor of child abuse, I can personally report that certain teachers made me feel safe and welcome. They captured my imagination, fired my curiosity, motivated me to rigor, provided avenues of self-expression, let me be competent, gave me hope for the future, and (I have no doubt whatever) saved my life.
Tracy Kidder watched such a teacher for a year in an inner-city school and concluded:
Good teachers usually have no way of knowing that they have made a difference in a child's life, even when they have made a dramatic one. But for children who are used to thinking of themselves as stupid or not worth talking to or deserving of rape and beatings, a good teacher can provide an astonishing revelation. A good teacher can give a child at least a chance to feel, "She thinks I'm worth something. Maybe I am." Good teachers . . . redirect hundreds of lives. Many people find it easy to imagine unseen webs of malevolent conspiracy in the world, and they are not always wrong. But there is also an innocence that conspires to hold humanity together, and it is made of people who can never fully know the good that they have done (1989, pp. 312-313).
Coffey, R. (in press). Unspeakable Truths and Happy Endings. Lutherville, Md.: SIDRAN Foundation. (http://www.access.digex.net/~sidran/).
Kidder, T. (1989). Among Schoolchildren. New York: Avon Books.
Miller, A. (1983). For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, translated by Hildegarde and Hunter Hannum. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
Myers, J.E.B., ed. (1994). The Backlash: Child Protection Under Fire. London: Sage Publications.
National Child Rights Alliance. (1997). (http://linux.hartford.edu/~jerry/ ncra.html).
Pool, C.R. (March 1997). "Maximizing Learning: A Conversation with Renate Nummela Caine." Educational Leadership 54, 6: 11-15.
Rush, F. (1980). The Best Kept Secret. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Sharon Bancroft recently became the Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment for the Port Angeles School District No. 121, 216 East Fourth St., Port Angeles, WA 98362 (e-mail: email@example.com).
Copyright © 1997 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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