Students struggle whether or not to seek help with their problems knowing teachers, counselors, and other school officials must report abuse to the authorities.
The Wellness Center is an important part of Atascadero High School as it supports students’ emotional well being. The center provides a surprising amount of on-campus mental health services, including individual and group counseling, during the school day. However, counseling conducted at the Wellness Center is not completely confidential. School officials are bound by law to report certain information that might be divulged in a counseling session. They are considered “mandated reporters.”
Some argue that mandatory reporting restricts the ability of the Wellness Center counselors to establish a therapeutic rapport with students facing more severe mental health problems or other serious issues, like suicidal thoughts. Supporters of the mandatory reporting law would argue that it is a necessary procedure for student safety, even though it is sometimes uncomfortable for students.
First, however, it is important to get straight what mandatory reporting actually is. The Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA) pursuant to Penal Codes 11164 through 11174.3 is a body of California laws designed to protect children from suffering harm. Ms. Proulx, the Wellness Center Coordinator and a licensed marriage and family therapist, is working her fourth year directing the Wellness Center. As a mandated reporter, she said that she must report, “...any time there is a student under 18 who is being harmed by someone else, if a student says they’re going to hurt themselves, if they’re suicidal, or if they’re going to hurt someone else, like if they plan to severely beat somebody.” She later went on to explain how “any type of abuse” is subject to mandatory reporting. This includes not just physical or sexual abuse, but also psychological or emotional abuse, which are often overlooked. Essentially, a report to child welfare or law enforcement authorities is mandatory when a student threatens to harm themselves or others. The law requires not just Wellness Center staff, but most other school employees including teachers and counselors to report the matter to the administration and potentially law enforcement, if needed.
Now that it is clear what mandatory reporting is, the question remains, “Does mandatory reporting undermine the ability for the Wellness Center to establish a therapeutic relationship with those students who are most in need of one?” Opponents of the law argue that mandatory reporting seriously inhibits such a relationship from forming. For example, if a high school aged child abuse victim has developed severe mental health issues related to that trauma, that student may not feel comfortable discussing their suicidal thoughts or abuse at the Wellness Center because mandatory reporting will result in the abuser being investigated. The victim may be afraid of the consequences that might result from law enforcement getting involved.
This fear is somewhat valid because if the abuse is severe enough, the student could be removed from their home or hospitalized for mental illness due to a report being filed. Many argue that even when temporary, removal from the home can be even more traumatic than the underlying cause of the removal itself. Ms. Proulx kindly addressed these concerns. “If we do have to make a report, we support the student through the whole process, and we encourage them to be as involved as they’re comfortable with. It’s never easy, but we try to make it as doable as possible so they feel like they’re not alone.” She goes on to explain how the Wellness Center always tries to let the students make the choice, with repeated warnings about the reporting policy. “You know, it’s something we talk about at the very beginning of our relationship with students. We discuss our reporting requirements, and we hope that we create a safe enough environment that when they are ready to disclose, they know they can do it in a way in which they are supported. I know that sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s the best solution and it’s difficult; it’s never easy. It’s part of the system.”
Another point that Ms. Proulx acknowledges is that the foster care system and similar institutions “can be worse” than what caused a student to be removed from his or her home. However, she also points out the fact that, nowadays, those involved with foster care always attempt to use removal of the child as a last resort, but adds that the Wellness Center itself has no control over that process. Ms. Proulx said, “Our goal is to make the students feel as safe as possible and to take care of their needs.” On the other hand, Audrey Freitas has her own opinion on mandatory reporting. She said, “Mandatory reporting seems like a great procedure to have. However, on re-examination, many kids will not get the help they need for fear of their parents or social services getting involved.” Another student, who prefers anonymity, “I would never feel comfortable talking about suicide or abuse with them knowing they would report it, so I wouldn’t tell them.”
Whether a person agrees with or opposes the Mandatory Reporting law, proponents on both sides share a common goal: the wellbeing of the student involved. It is only the methods we use to protect students that are the source of any controversy.