Next month, the state Assembly education committee will begin discussing legislation to require that school employees receive child abuse reporting training every year.
After two years of reports by this newspaper of various school employees failing to properly report child abuse, Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Burbank, introduced Assembly Bill 1432, which would change state law from "strongly encouraging" training to "requiring annual training," including yearly proof of such education.
"This is really an example of stuff that was published really motivating legislation," Gatto said in a phone interview.
Teachers, administrators and all school employees are considered "mandated reporters," required to immediately report any suspected child abuse to police or county Child Protective Services. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor crime.
A report by this newspaper last year found that fewer than half of 94 Bay Area school districts surveyed trained employees on the identification and reporting of child abuse and neglect, and that training standards varied by district. This newspaper has covered cases of unreported physical and sexual child abuse by teachers in the Moraga, Brentwood, Antioch, San Jose and Mt. Diablo districts. Incidents included cover-ups of reported incidents, investigations of abuse on their own, and obfuscating other investigating agencies' efforts.
These revelations led to teacher convictions, employee terminations and large lawsuit payouts.
"The situation now is a mess. The law is suggestive and not mandatory. Training is done on a school-by-school basis," said Gatto, who called the current training law a "recipe for bad things to happen."
On Feb. 11, he amended his legislation to include requirements that employees must provide proof of training at the start of each school year, and that the state Department of Education would create a training program, including an online module.
A youth law expert called the legislation a "step in the right direction."
"Providing training to school district personnel about their obligation to report suspected child abuse or neglect should be mandatory, not left to the discretion of districts," said Bill Grimm, senior attorney with the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland. But other reasons suspected abuse is not reported -- including the culture within some districts to deal with such problems internally -- remain unaddressed, Grimm said.
The bill allows districts to opt out of training if they can give the state Department of Education a reason. However, if a district opts out, it could open itself up to significant liability, said Gatto, adding that individual teachers would be responsible for getting the training, which would be needed for teaching in California.
Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction, supports the bill and praised the newspaper reporting that prompted it.
"Even as changing state laws have expanded the number and nature of 'mandatory reporters,' never have they required any accompanying training in these duties," he wrote in a letter of support to Gatto. That lack of training, Torlakson said, "does a disservice to both school employees and to the children these laws are meant to protect."
Carol Carrillo, executive director of the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Contra Costa, also has written legislators in support of the bill. Her agency provided live training to more than 5,000 mandated reporters in 2013, and has requests from schools that will double that number this year, she said.
"It's been positively overwhelming for us. We're happy school districts are reaching out to us and providing time for training," Carrillo said.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.