As a substitute teacher, you have the special job of being in classrooms and helping students continue their learning while teachers are away. Although you may sub at many different schools, you work hard to get to know students and do your best to give them a positive day. Every substitute learns quickly that working in schools involves much more than people might realize, managing not only learning but also the social and emotional needs of students. For many students, these needs are high because of difficult home lives or traumatic experiences.
One thing that anyone working in schools needs to be aware of—including substitutes—is how to recognize the signs that a student is potentially being abused or neglected and how to report your suspicions.
Signs of Possible Abuse or Neglect
Below is a list of signs to watch for in student behavior or talk. This list is not exhaustive; you should report on any reasonable suspicion.
- a student telling you directly about abuse or neglect
- visible bruises or injuries
- attempts to hide bruises or injuries; changing accounts of how bruises or injuries happened
- visible cowering when the student is approached by an adult or around certain family members
- reluctance to go with certain family members
- signs of malnutrition (sunken skin on bones, extreme fatigue, dizziness, pallor, etc.)
- comments about harmful living conditions, guests, or punishments at home
- comments about risky behaviors, such as meeting up with strangers or having to send/receive inappropriate content
- children acting out sexual behaviors during play
- signs of self-abuse, such as cutting or suicidal comments, writing, or drawings
Confidentiality and Reporting
When you suspect that a student is being abused or neglected, take the utmost care to keep this information confidential except when you share with the appropriate authorities. As a substitute, you should not conduct your own investigation. For example, if you notice numerous bruises on a student, you should not approach the student and begin questioning. These investigations must be done by qualified staff in private settings.
When you suspect that a student is being abused or neglected, contact the office in a time and manner that will not break confidentiality (e.g., not when students in the classroom will overhear your call to the office). Alert the office of the need for a counselor or administrator to investigate. You should also make a note for the teacher about your suspicions.
Follow up with the office at the end of the day to make sure that they have passed along your information and are assuming responsibility for investigating and any further reporting. Keep your own documentation of making a report, such as an email to yourself with the date and which school personnel you reported to. You may also contact law enforcement or your state’s child protective services office directly.
If you suspect abuse by a staff member at the school, report to a school administrator, or report to the next level of authority if it involves an administrator. You may also contact law enforcement or your state’s child protective services office directly.
Almost every state has “Mandatory Reporting” laws which require those who work in education to report any suspicion that a student is being abused or neglected. In many states, this includes substitutes and even community volunteers. Individuals can be criminally liable for learning of suspected abuse and not reporting it. Beyond the possible legal obligation you may be under, it is simply the right thing to do for the protection and wellbeing of children and youth. In reporting, it is better to err on the side of speaking up so that an investigation by trained school staff or state agencies can determine if the student is in need of care.
You should be prepared for the difficult emotions around suspected child abuse. Students, especially when they are older, may share about abuse and then afterward ask you NOT to tell anyone. You should be compassionate toward their feelings but inform them that you are obligated to report anything involving the health and safety of students.