Picture this: It is February, snowy outside, and a chilly 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Ariel shows up to her 2nd grade class dressed in a T-shirt, a thin jacket, a skirt, no socks, and some wildly colored rain boots.
Context #1: This is a tuition-based Waldorf or Montessori school and creativity is prized. Almost all the students are from affluent homes and live in relatively well-appointed and homogeneous neighborhoods and households. The parents who attend each school meeting overwhelmingly support attachment parenting, an approach to child-rearing that centers a child's creativity and autonomy and includes practices such as co-sleeping that support the bond between child and parent.
Context #2: This public school is described by the district as "at risk" and is in a neighborhood that experiences systemic disinvestment: few afterschool programs for young people, dwindling social services, high unemployment, and unmaintained parks and other public spaces. This community does possess other forms of public investment: policing and surveillance. The school staff has a high turnover, and many of the new teachers don't live in the neighborhood.
Race and class, built into these descriptions of context and geography, make the galaxy of difference to how schools engage with Ariel and her rain boots. When affluent white children are underdressed for the weather, an initial assumption is often to attribute that difference to creativity, or freedom of expression. That child is an innovator! She marches to her own drum! Or, when a child reports sleeping in a family bed, it is attachment parenting, a legitimate and defensible way for a parent to raise their child. Yet, when poor and/or non-white parents engage in these practices, they are neglecting their child. No socks in the cold weather?! That child is being abused. Sharing a bed is co-sleeping and is a potentially criminalizable activity in many states.
Many of us might not think twice about reporting Ariel to child social services. We care! How can it be a bad thing to express concern about a child's well being? However, this small act of reporting can trigger a landslide. Child Protective Services has neither protected children, nor addressed the systemic factors that make children more vulnerable. Instead, as scholar and activist Dorothy Roberts chronicles in her blistering, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2002), the nation's child welfare systems dismantle Black families, demonize Black mothers, and place Black children in the "pipeline" for prison.
Adults harm children, including their own. Children harm each other. While the everyday crushing violence of poverty and the toll it exacts on young people rarely makes headlines, the public, the media, and policymakers gravitate towards the few cases that involve extreme abuse and sometimes even death. The lives, and preventable deaths, of a small number of young people are unquestionably important. We must work to end interpersonal violence, including how adults harm the children in their lives. Any death is too many, and we believe our communities are capable of building antiviolence movements that can eliminate child abuse. However, this violence should not be used to legitimate and expand a carceral state that fails to either prevent or end violence against children. And, as this essay illustrates, these systems fall woefully short in helping educators negotiate the overwhelming majority of situations that we face, such as Ariel in her rain boots, that rely on judgment or discretion.
Ensuring that Black Lives Matter in education requires seismic shifts including shrinking the footprint of policing in hallways and communities, excavating the ongoing practices and policies that reproduce heterogendered white supremacy in schools, and much more. However, what is too often erased in these movements is the key way the profession of teaching facilitates forms of racialized and heterogendered surveillance and criminalization. Teachers are mandated reporters who are required by law to report young people that they have reason to believe experience neglect and abuse. While on paper this charge looks neutral, as caregivers, mothers, educators and scholars we write this essay to examine the impacts of mandated reporting. To teach to ensure that all Black Lives Matter requires a refusal to be complicit in the mechanisms which contribute to the destruction of too many families and communities.
Many teachers know that they are legally obligated to report. Mandated Reporter laws require people who have interactions with children (or other vulnerable or protected populations) to report reasonable suspicions of neglect or abuse. By law I must report if I suspect a child is being harmed! As mandated reporters, educational personnel report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect at essentially the same rate as law enforcement.
Three-fifths (62.7 percent) of all reports of alleged child abuse or neglect were made by professionals. The term "professional" means that the person who was the source of the report had contact with the alleged child maltreatment victim as part of their job. The most common professional report sources were legal and law enforcement personnel (18.1 percent), education personnel (17.7 percent), social services staff (11.0 percent). (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016, p. 2)
This legal position means that teachers aren't bystanders and it places them within the "soft" extension of the carceral, or punishing, state.
The establishment of mandated reporting laws, through one lens, is fairly transparent. In 1962, C. Henry Kempe's "The Battered-Child Syndrome" was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. One of the first studies to name child abuse as a significant and widespread social issue, Kempe's article garnered national attention and galvanized action. Mainstream media coverage of child abuse, according to historian Barbara Nelson, skyrocketed: "between 1950 and 1980 the Times published 652 articles pertaining to [child] abuse" (Nelson, 1984, p. 73). Between 1963 and 1967 all states passed some form of a child abuse reporting law (Nelson, 1984, p. 72). By 1978, after the 1974 passage of federal legislation, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which required states to pass "provisions or procedures for an individual to report known and suspected instances of child abuse and neglect, including a State law for mandatory reporting by individuals required to report such instances" (Brown & Gallagher, 2014, p. 45), mandated reporting legislation flourished: "forty-eight states required nurses to report, forty-nine required teachers and school officials to report, forty-nine required social workers to report, and forty required law enforcement officers to report" (Brown & Gallagher, 2014, p. 42).
Across the states, teachers' legal roles under mandated reporter laws are relatively similar. For example, the 1975 Illinois Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act states that teachers must inform authorities if they have a "reasonable cause to believe" a child is being neglected or abused. Over the last three decades these laws have continued to shift: In Illinois, starting in 1986 all teachers must sign a form stating that they understand the repercussions if they fail to comply, and as of 2013, all mandated reporters must be retrained in the law every five years. There are few prosecutions of "failure to report." In Illinois only a handful of teachers have been charged over the last decade; however, compared to other states, the penalties are steep. "Illinois defines a failure to report as a Class A misdemeanor with a subsequent violation carrying a class 4 felony charge. A class 4 felony in Illinois carries a minimum jail sentence of one year with a maximum of three years" (Brown & Gallagher 2014, p. 63).
Mandated reporting laws are a part of a wider movement that created our nation's child protection services, a system, legal scholar Martin Guggenheim (2005) argues, that is in part the result of a political compromise and a failure to name and to challenge white supremacy, particularly anti-Black racism. Guggenheim argues that the early 1970s were characterized by a racialized backlash to the limited gains forged through both the 1960s era civil rights movement and the Johnson Administration's "War on Poverty." Social movements fought to ensure that key federal social assistance programs were at least nominally open to non-white communities, and new initiatives emerged to target poverty. Yet these programs were quickly under attack precisely because they had been extended to some non-white communities, and particularly to women (Kandaswamy, 2010). While anti-poverty funding had been directly linked to child welfare in 1967 through federal programs like the Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), by the 1970s, while children still merited support, poor adults, particularly nonwhite adults, did not. Conservatives, Guggenheim writes, effectively argued that...