Responding When Students Disclose Abuse

Given the high rate of all forms of violence perpetrated against children and teens, there will be victims, perpetrators, and witnesses of violence among any group of students. Some students may feel ready to speak out. Others may not feel safe disclosing their experiences, yet give clues. They may talk about “a friend” who was victimized or ask a question about a hypothetical situation. Others may be visibly troubled, yet remain silent, leave suddenly, or linger after class. It is not uncommon for a student to blurt out something very revealing, then say nothing for days. It is important you anticipate these situations and feel ready to address them.

Prior to presenting on any topic, list the names and phone numbers of resources within your community. These services may include a school guidance counselor, domestic violence/sexual assault program, mental health agency, and/or drug and alcohol center.

Allow students to write questions you can answer privately (if they leave their name) or in front of the class (if anonymous). Let students know resources available to them. Make yourself available to take questions or talk privately with students.

Have information available about teen safety plans.

Things to remember when working with survivors or their loved ones:

Believe. Statistics indicate that most people coming forward to disclose abuse are telling the truth. In fact, it is more likely that students will lie about, minimize, or deny abuse. Telling students you believe them establishes you as a safe point of contact.

Listen. Allow students to disclose on their own timeframe. Asking questions is the knee-jerk reaction to hearing a disclosure. Listening more and talking less allows students to process their feelings and work through their experience.

Empower. Give students the resources and tools necessary to heal from their experience. Allow them to make decisions about their next steps.

Know your limits. You cannot promise students that their situation will “be ok.” You cannot fix it for them. You cannot be there with them every second of every day. Allow yourself to express your limits (time, energy, knowledge, ability).

Consult your school policy on reporting child abuse and neglect. Remind students before beginning each unit that you are required by law to report any incident of suspected child abuse or neglect. As an additional activity, you may want to invite a Child Protective Service Worker to explain what happens when a report has been filed.