Experts give tips on spotting signs of child abuse during distance learning

Cases of child abuse rose significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic while reports decreased, but there are strategies teachers and school officials can use to identify the signs even in virtual learning, according to a Feb. 16 webinar hosted by CSBA Business Affiliate Keenan & Associates.

“Protecting Students During the Pandemic: Detecting, Preventing, and Addressing Child Abuse in the Online Classroom” featured presenters from the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California. Focused primarily on internet crimes against children, federal prosecutors Mira Chernick and Michael D. Anderson gave an overview of the situation and offered advice to educators on how to spot and report abuse remotely as well as tips on prevention.

“Traditionally, about a fifth of the reports of child sexual abuse are made by educators,” Anderson said. “It’s really valuable to make sure that even in the online environment, we’re still getting good reports and educators know how to make those reports effectively.”

The three categories of abuse that the webinar flagged for educators are in-person physical or sexual abuse, human trafficking and online exploitation and sextortion.

Online exploitation is the form of abuse people are least familiar with, according to the presentation. It includes child sexual abuse material such as child pornography, enticement (someone forming a relationship with a child and trying to get them to meet for the purposes of sex) and sextortion (a situation where online predators will get images of a child and threaten to distribute it to extort them into producing more material or engaging in other activities).

Tips to improve educator–student connections online

Prior to the pandemic, the safest part of some students’ day was when they were on campus. Away from the physical classroom, one challenge in detecting abuse is that the abuser may be present during the school day. “It can very well be that you’re talking to a student who is being abused and that abuser is 5 feet off camera in the same room,” Anderson pointed out. “That is going to affect the interaction that you have.”

Other challenges that have emerged are having a limited view of students and having fewer opportunities to interact with students one-on-one. Presenters said a workaround to better see students is adjusting virtual classroom settings and using the “speaker view” instead of the tile view to see larger images of them. This gives educators the opportunity to look for signs of distress or abuse.

It will only work, however, if students have their cameras on — something they may not want to do if they’re embarrassed of their living situation.

Distributing cardboard tri-fold backgrounds to students, using virtual backgrounds or only requiring cameras be turned on for certain activities are ways to encourage on-screen appearances.

Checking in with students by asking a question that they can answer via chat instead of out loud, having office hours and letting them know there are multiple people they can reach out to are key actions to allow for connection. “Many educators are in a position now where they’ve had very little or possibly no in-person contact with the students that they’re teaching. That can be very, very difficult to develop a relationship of trust with students in that environment,” Anderson said. “If you have a teacher from a prior year who has been able to develop that relationship it can go a long way.”

Reporting and prevention

Being ready to follow up on warning signs and collaborate with counselors or resource officers is critical.

Anderson said educators or other school staff that interact with students online should trust their instincts and recognize that they’re not the one making the final determination on whether abuse has occurred.

Though teachers receive mandatory reporting training locally, the presenters noted that they can call 911 if a student is in immediate danger and contact Child Protective Services with welfare issues and/or human trafficking concerns and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for online exploitation. Other crimes against children can be reported to area police or sheriff’s offices and reporters can always ask to speak to someone specializing in internet crimes against children or crimes against children.

Prevention is imperative, and securing online classrooms is a good place to start. “Every platform has default settings and it’s really important that you don’t rely on them,” Anderson said.

Setting a password for classrooms and meetings can prevent unwanted individuals from entering and learning about students. It also prevents extortion scenarios where someone can put up images of a student they’ve collected in order to embarrass or threaten that student in their classroom.

Teachers should also maintain control of settings for microphones, cameras and screen and file sharing and know how to use them so if something inappropriate occurs they can quickly shut it down. For districts utilizing monitoring software, Anderson said to make sure it’s being used effectively.

“If it’s turned on but it’s just sending notifications to an email inbox that nobody is checking that’s not helping anyone,” he said. “Make sure that there’s a process in place that everybody knows and understands for any reports to be reported to law enforcement.”

Teachers and administrators should also take steps to secure their online profiles and be cognizant of what they post. “The reason for this is that predators are going to be looking for clues about their victims online and on other people’s online profiles,” Anderson explained. “There’s a really large amount of information that they’re able to draw off of other people’s profiles that they can then use against the student they’re targeting.”

The office has a Guidance for Educators on Combatting Child Abuse during Online Learning and material for parents and students on how they can be safer online.