This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
School volunteers are no longer legally liable for failing to report signs of child abuse to authorities, they learned in an email from the District on Monday.
Officially, volunteers are now considered “permissive reporters,” people who are encouraged to report but who can’t be charged criminally for failing to report signs of child abuse or neglect. Their former role was as “mandatory reporters,” like teachers, who potentially face criminal charges if they fail to report signs of child abuse or neglect.
“Volunteers are not classified as mandated reporters by the state, and after receiving strong feedback from families, staff members, and community members about the potential negative and legal implications of making volunteers mandated reporters, the District decided to make volunteers permissive reporters instead,” said District spokesman Lee Whack in a statement. “The District is still providing volunteers with an overview of child abuse recognition and reporting procedures, along with their role as permissive reporters, through the mandatory Volunteer Orientation.”
Therefore, the institutional encouragement to report child abuse hasn’t gone anywhere, as the email sent to parents also made clear.
“The School District of Philadelphia strongly encourages volunteers to speak to a teacher, the counselor, the principal, or another staff member if they observe something they believe is a sign of child abuse,” the email reads. “Volunteers may still choose to make a report to ChildLine directly.” (The ChildLine phone number to report abuse and neglect is 800-932-0313.)
On the Philadelphia Home and School Council Facebook page, parents and teachers expressed mixed feelings about the change.
“I think that every adult should be held accountable to report abuse,” said Tasha Russell, a teacher at Wagner Middle School. “It’s unfair to the students to not hold every adult accountable.”
When asked why she thought the District decided to make the change, Russell said that “perhaps” it would help get more volunteers in a community with a “no-snitch mentality.” Still, Russell said, she does not support the new policy.
“I actually was a little conflicted, but understand because I heard other sides of the story," said Shakeda Gaines, parent of one child at Bodine High School and two at Philadelphia Virtual Academy and also a volunteer in her role as president of the Philadelphia Home & School Council. "I knew that parents were having a very hard time becoming volunteers, and some were scared that people who don’t like them might use [mandatory reporting] to get back at them.”
Gaines said volunteers for the Home & School Council still operate as mandatory reporters because the council has its own rules for reporting.
“We’ve heard from parents that were absolutely terrified of being a mandatory reporter," Gaines said, adding that the District may get more volunteers as a result of the change. "Parents should still operate in that manner and make sure other parents inside of schools are still doing the right thing. … We should have faith in our parents and our volunteers to do the right thing, which is reporting abuse."
"Keep volunteering," she added. "If you see something, say something."