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Building a School/District Reporting Protocol: Recognizing, Responding to, and Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect

Another aspect of keeping children safe is to create and implement a school reporting protocol designed to help school personnel to respond appropriately and effectively to students who either disclose that they are being (or have been) abused or neglected, or about whom abuse or neglect is suspected. School reporting protocols include information and guidance on the definitions of the various types of child maltreatment; the physical and behavioral symptoms through which they can be recognized; guidance about responding to children who disclose; a clearly defined school reporting chain; the details and timelines of the mandatory DCF reporting process; the information educators should be prepared to provide when reporting, the legal responsibilities of mandated reporters; and training requirements.

The work of an educator today is increasingly complex and challenging. Expanding class sizes, greater awareness of the varied learning styles of students, diverse cultural backgrounds that impact relationships in the classroom, the realities of the pandemic-driven shift to remote learning, hybrid learning and the subsequent return to the classroom environment, and the struggles and stress in students’ home lives, combine to create expectations of teachers that have never been higher. In addition, educators and administrators are constantly dealing with a range of behavioral, social, emotional, and discipline concerns that impact the learning culture for all students.

In the midst of this complex classroom atmosphere, educators must also be aware of the signs and symptoms of child abuse and neglect, and act on their legal responsibility to report their concerns and suspicions. Chapter 119, Section 51A of the Massachusetts General Laws 78 names educators among the list of mandated reporters – those who are obligated to report suspicions of child maltreatment (Also see Appendix E). Failure to report may result in a fine of up to $1000 – a penalty that reflects the ethical duty of educators to protect their students and to see that the children in their care are free from barriers to learning. The trauma of abuse and neglect is indeed one of those barriers.

To assist educators in fulfilling the responsibilities there are also requirements in both MA Law and Regulations, as well as in DESE/DCF Advisories that mandate training. The 51A(k) statute states that “a mandated reporter who is professionally licensed by the commonwealth shall complete training to recognize and report suspected child abuse or neglect”. Likewise, MGL, Part I, Title XII, Chapter 71, Section 37L states that “The school committee of each city, town or regional school district shall inform teachers, administrators, and other professional staff of reporting requirements for child abuse and neglect under section 51A of chapter 119…”. MA Regulation 603 CMR 18.05(i) also states that “The school shall describe in writing procedures and staff training relative to the reporting of suspected child abuse or neglect to the Department of Social Services as required by M.G.L. c.119, s.51A and B or, for students over the age of 18, to the Disabled Persons Protection Commission.” Finally, the training requirement is reiterated for school personnel in the Joint DESE/DCF Advisory Regarding Mandated Reporting Responsibilities of School Personnel in Cases of Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect 79 : “This [training] requirement applies to teachers and administrators licensed by DESE, as well as school psychologists, nurses, and other clinicians licensed by the Commonwealth. It is recommended that such training is completed annually.” (See section on Training below for link to online training).

Education personnel and other mandated reporters are required to immediately report child abuse and neglect to the Department of Children and Families 80 (followed by a written report within 48 hours) when in their professional capacity they have “reasonable cause to believe that a child is suffering physical or emotional injury resulting from: (i) abuse inflicted upon him which causes harm or substantial risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare, including sexual abuse; (ii) neglect, including malnutrition; (iii) physical dependence upon an addictive drug at birth, or (iv) being a sexually exploited child; or (v) being a human trafficking 81 victim as defined by section 20M of chapter 233 82 (Also see Appendix E).

There is also a provision in MGL Chapter 119, Section 51A that mandated reporters who are employees of a school (as well as several other public and private institutions), can notify the person in charge (Principal, Head of School, etc.), or an individual designated by that person, of allegations of abuse or neglect. This provision effectively transfers the reporting responsibility to the person in charge or to the school’s “designated agent.” For example, a teacher who learns of allegations of abuse or neglect regarding a student may alert the principal of those allegations and the principal would then be legally responsible to make the report to DCF. If the principal has designated the vice-principal or school counselor as the reporting agent, the report would be made to them. It then legally becomes that individual’s responsibility to file the 51A report rather than the teacher’s. However, nothing in this provision precludes a mandated reporter from contacting DCF themselves (more on this below).

Although it may be difficult for educators to identify and express their concerns about a child who may be experiencing child abuse or neglect, there are several factors that can help to facilitate an immediate and effective response. First, the physical and behavioral indicators of child abuse and neglect 83 can be identified and educators can learn to recognize them. Teachers and other school support people who have taken courses or had training in child maltreatment will tell you they now have more confidence in their ability to identify the symptoms of maltreatment and feel better able to help children whom they would not have known how to help prior to their course work. Secondly, an educator need not be alone in the process of identifying and reporting suspected child abuse or neglect. Peers within the school setting can be invaluable in their support. And finally, children who are helped by a concerned educator can benefit from the intervention in a variety of ways. Every year, the prompt intervention of concerned educators ensures that children and their families receive the help they need. But in order to do this, educators must be proactive in their approach. This Manual is also designed to help you in this effort by reviewing the symptoms of the various types of child maltreatment and identifying the steps necessary to respond appropriately through the development and utilization of a school reporting protocol. The development of a school reporting protocol is also encouraged in the aforementioned “Joint DESE/DCF Advisory Regarding Mandated Reporting Responsibilities of School Personnel in Cases of Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect” (see Section 8). An effective protocol can help to ensure schools that their intervention in child maltreatment situations reflects the best interests of the child.

78 https://malegislature.gov/laws/generallaws/parti/titlexvii/chapter119/section51a

79 Advisory Regarding Mandated Reporting Responsibilities of School Personnel in Cases of Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect (October 2021). (https://www.doe.mass.edu/lawsregs/advisory/child-abuse.html)

80 https://www.mass.gov/how-to/report-child-abuse-or-neglect

81 Note that for DCF purposes, the term Human Trafficking is used as an umbrella term to include two allegations of abuse: Human Trafficking – Sexually Exploited Child, Human Trafficking – Labor.

82 https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartIII/TitleII/Chapter233/Section20m

83 https://safekidsthrive.org/prevention-topics/reporting/recognizing-abuse-neglect/


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