By Marcus Risinger and Mallory Scott
The role of a teacher is to act “in loco parentis,” or in place of the parent, while children are under their care in the school setting. In some cases, a teacher must take on protective responsibilities beyond the scope of this role to report child abuse or harmful activity occurring outside of their classrooms. Although educators hope they will never have to exercise this power, teachers across the country serve the role of mandatory reporters. These adults report suspected incidents of child abuse or neglect to the relevant legal authorities, and include teachers, medical professionals, social workers, and law enforcement officers, among others. In Arizona specifically, ARS § 13-3620 outlines the mandatory reporting responsibility, while other Title 8 statutes control the Department of Child Safety’s duties to investigate allegations of abuse or neglect .
What must be reported?
Mandatory reporters must report injuries, neglect, and criminal offenses to law enforcement or DCS immediately upon forming a “reasonable belief” that a child is endangered . Choosing not to report while having reasonable knowledge or belief puts the reporter at risk of receiving punishment ranging from a Class 1 Misdemeanor to a Class 6 Felony (depending on the type of maltreatment the professional failed to report). In exchange, mandatory reporters receive certain protections for reports made in good faith, even if the outcome of the child safety investigation does not reveal abuse or neglect. Society expects these individuals – in their unique positions of public trust as caretakers and protectors of children – to speak out without fear of repercussions if their suspicion is misplaced.
What if a teacher perpetrates abuse?
Perhaps the most well-known incident of a teacher conducting sexual abuse, rather than reporting it, is Mary Kay Letourneau in the late 1990s. Her story was not only salacious due to the teacher-student relationship, but also the fact that her victim was extremely young (not even in high school yet). Letourneau also received a stricter sentence than originally anticipated due to her recidivism, having violated a no-contact order intended to protect her victim after her initial prison time. This case was significant, not only for troubling circumstances but also for Letourneau publicizing and profiting from her case for the decades that followed .
In recent news, another case of alleged abuse by a teacher has received significant media attention. Kelly Vanderhulst, a former “Teacher of the Year” in Yucaipa, California, was recently charged with sexual contact with a minor. Being the third incident out of this specific high school within ten years, this school faces criticism for repeated controversies that should, in theory, be prevented by California’s mandatory reporting laws . One incident at this school involved a substitute teacher, and while further removed than a full-time employee, still violated the CA age of consent requirement and involved the exploitation of a student with this relationship.
California’s mandatory reporting requirements include similar requirements to Arizona’s, including the provision that non-mandated reporters can contact authorities and receive similar legal protections despite not being required to report. The California statute notes that if a report from a non-mandatory reporter “concerns a person who does not have care, custody or control of the minor, the report shall be made to a peace officer only” .
Sexual contact with a student violates statutes related to the age of consent, but it also demonstrates the exploitation of a position of power and trust. It also begs the question: in a school filled with mandatory reporters, how are these behaviors not discovered sooner? Educators must report suspected abuse regardless of the culprit, even if making allegations against a co-worker or friend. The responsibility cannot be delegated to another individual or negated by the reporter’s relationship with another teacher. Additionally, it is never permissible for an abuse incident to go unreported under the assumption that another mandatory reporter would make the call. Responsibility to report applies to everyone who observes conditions indicating a responsible suspicion of abuse or neglect.
The Yucaipa case also illustrates the naivete of many assumptions we make collectively about perpetrators of abuse. Teachers who exploit students are not always strange, old, awkward, and isolated men, despite the imagery typically used to portray them. Exploitation occurs across all demographics, and often the perpetrators who evade detection longest are young, attractive, charismatic people whom parents and student’s trust. In fact, the majority of offenders are well-known to the child: parents, stepparents, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, friends, teachers, etc. Popular media causes parents to fear unknown assailants while they ignore the potential risks posed by people they trust. For this reason, many states, including Arizona, impose harsher penalties on perpetrators whose relationship with the victim arose from a position of trust.
What is the public perception of teachers as abusers?
Public reaction to stories of abuse varies tremendously based on the sex, age, and appearance of the perpetrator. The recent Yucaipa case was discussed on Fox News, where host Greg Gutfeld applauded Vanderhulst’s actions. He called her “heroic” and repeatedly exclaimed how much he envied the 16-year-old victim, declaring, “I’m not saying it’s right. I’m just saying, “Why not me?” Gutfeld is right about one thing: his reaction to a 38-year-old man sexually abusing a 16-year-old student would be wildly different .
The mandatory reporter’s responsibility is blind to age, sex, appearance, or status, but the reality of mandatory reporting is that “reasonable suspicion” of abuse looks different to each potential reporter. Even if lawmakers adopt clear, uniform, and objective standards for suspected abuse, those relied upon to contact authorities will always be human first and mandatory reporters second. Unless perceptions and reactions to incidents of abuse change, children will remain confused and vulnerable to exploitation by the same people that society trusts to sound the alarm.
 State v. Letourneau, 100 Wash. App. 424 (2000)
 Cal. Pen. Code, § 11165.9.
Marcus Risinger is an attorney at Woodnick Law, PLLC and MLS faculty associate teaching administrative regulation at the ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. He practices in all aspects of child welfare matters, including Title 8 dependency/severance, Title 13 defense litigation, Title 25 parent and third-party rights, Title 41 administrative controversies, and appeals.
Mallory Scott is a law clerk at Woodnick Law and a 2L at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.