I am a big fan of Slate‘s Dear Prudence advice column. Emily Yoffe generally dispenses level-headed, no-nonsense advice that doesn’t condescend to her readers. There is a dearth of common sense in American popular culture, and it’s nice to see a regular source of it.
Which is why it surprised me immensely to see her giving utterly terrible advice in her weekly live-chat this past Monday. Her reader writes:
Q. A Teacher’s Problem: I work as a high-school teacher, and I love my job. A couple of weeks ago a student, “James,” came to school with bruises on his face. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, so I had a quiet word with him after school. He is one of the students in my class I’ve established a good rapport with and from time to time he comes for advice about his schoolwork and personal life. He told me his dad has been incredibly stressed with various work and family issues. One night James had a huge argument with his sister, and Dad lost it and hit him. From past discussions I was left with the impression that he has loving parents, and there is no indication of ongoing abuse. Based on several lengthy talks I’ve concluded that this was a one-off event by a dad under heavy pressure who now feels overwhelming guilt about what he did. Based on school policy, however, I’m meant to report this as child abuse. I can reasonably predict this will result in some serious repercussions for the entire family. (To complicate matters, James’s dad is a public figure within our local area.) My question is, do I report this? Or should I accept it as a discipline gone too far and save the family from huge consequences?
A: This is a real moral dilemma. I am trusting that your relationship with James is good enough that he is being honest with you about what happened, and is not covering for a father who constantly abuses him. You’re right that reporting this will trigger all sorts of legal consequences. Even if the father understands that these rightly flow from his inexcusable action, the entire family may suffer terribly because of James confiding in you. If the father has been deeply chastened by his outburst and will never repeat it, getting this family in “the system” could bring unnecessary pain to all of them. In response to your questions, James could have told you he got a stick to the face during lacrosse and you’d never have been the wiser. I think you should not report this one instance, but keep your connection with James. If the father lashes out again, then you must take the steps to call him to account. I do wonder, however, if keeping this yourself could possibly put you in a precarious legal position for not following up on your obligation as a mandatory reporter. I’d love readers with expertise on these issues to weigh in.
That advice is awful. The teacher’s obligation to report is not based on school policy. It is almost certainly based on the law. Nearly every state mandates that teachers report all cases of abuse, including cases where abuse is even suspected. This teacher has no legal capacity to determine whether or not she should report, whether the abuse was a one-off, or whether the father is appropriately contrite. All mandated reporters (myself included) must report the abuse to the appropriate authorities. What Prudie counseled was illegal, and if the teacher followed that advice she could (and should) lose her job.
Many readers during the live-chat wrote in and told Prudie so, and by the end of the session she had back-tracked. It was prudent (ha!) of her to solicit advice from readers with expertise, and everyone’s allowed on occasional mistake. Again, I’m a big fan of hers. But while it’s especially troubling that the teacher herself was unclear about her legal and professional obligations (to say nothing of her moral one), I’m also a little unsettled that Prudie would dispense such uninformed advice. It took me all of thirty seconds to confirm that mandatory reporting is the law in almost every state (it certainly has been in all the states where I’ve been licensed). Perhaps she doesn’t have a lot of time for Google during live interaction with her readers, but she’s got a high-profile gig where people ask her what they should do, and to me that implies a certain obligation to be somewhat informed about the correct answers to questions that are likely to be asked of her. I’m glad she has informed readers, because otherwise a kid out there may have lost his best chance to stop being abused.