By Stephanie Johnson, LICSW
A vital component of an international school’s infrastructure is the policies and procedures put in place to help ensure student safety. Safeguarding policies are important because they demonstrate an organization’s commitment to keeping children safe, they provide a common set of standards and expectations, and they outline what to do if there is a concern about a child.
A child safeguarding (or child protection) policy is generally one of a cluster of related protocols that outline the approach and actions a school will take to care for the physical and emotional health of its students. This article will focus on the important components of a child safeguarding policy as well as briefly outline related policies that are important to the well-being of the school community.
Defining Child Abuse
A school Safeguarding Policy should start with a definition of child abuse. This definition should be linked to larger statutory guidance and/or international human rights policy. The most common legislation used as a foundation for school safeguarding policies is that of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
Most child protection policies have a section that describes/defines various types of child maltreatment (i.e., physical, sexual, emotional abuse and neglect) and how to recognize them. This helps provide a common understanding of the signs and symptoms of abuse so that all members of the community can take action if they see possible risks.
It is important, as well, that the school operates in accordance with local laws about child abuse; this should be referenced in the policy. The International Center for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC) has a good list of country-specific legislation and can be found here. However, due to variations in country laws, schools may have more comprehensive safeguarding policies than the host country. For example, a school may strongly discourage corporal punishment, and despite the fact that it is permitted in the host country, contact parents who use this form of discipline to discuss alternative approaches.
A good policy is clear, easily understood, and endorsed by all members of the school community. The policy should be approved by the school’s governing body, reviewed on a regular (annual) basis, and be easily located (featured as part of the school’s web page for example).
A school safeguarding policy should not just discuss what to do if a child is harmed. It should also define the school’s commitment to:
An important component of any school safeguarding policy/procedure is the identification of the person/people in charge of child protection. Schools should have these people/groups identified in their policy:
While schools differ in who takes these specific roles, it is important that someone is in charge of keeping the safeguarding agenda moving forward and who has time in their schedule designated for this. Some schools identify a Safeguarding Manager who is responsible for making sure child safety is a priority in all areas of the school and remains an ongoing, dynamic part of the school agenda.
Child protection procedures should outline what to do if there is a concern about a child and how to make a report of suspected abuse. Within the guidelines for reporting concerns, several areas should be clearly addressed:
Codes of Conduct
It is very important that schools have Codes of Conduct so that all members of the community know the expectations for behavior; it is a key part of the structure on which child safety rests. Staff should know what is/is not permitted in their interaction with students. Students should know the boundaries of behavior in and out of school and the consequences of infractions. Parents should know the school expectations around communication, volunteering, and privacy. This provides a sense of security and containment in schools, which are increasingly complex institutions.
While staff codes of conduct vary from school to school, there are certain components that should be included in all employee expectations:
What Takes Place When a Safeguarding Concern Is Raised
The exact process for managing a report/concern about child safety often varies from school to school. However, most investigations into child safeguarding include several stages: information gathering, determination of severity, intervention, and documentation. Schools may have more or less involvement in this process depending on the local laws and philosophy of the host country’s child protection agencies.
Information Gathering and Determination of Severity
The first steps in responding to a concern is to gather information to determine the credibility and severity of the concern. This may involve talking to the student(s), family, other teachers, and/or the school nurse. It should include checking to see if concerns have been raised the past. School staff need to determine the exact nature of the concern (physical abuse, bullying, self-harm, etc.), if the concern is an isolated incident or ongoing issue, and whether there is imminent risk to the child.
Selecting the Intervention
The type of intervention selected depends on the severity of the concern; there is a wide range of responses schools can take. It is important to remember that, when it comes to child protection, doing nothing is not an option. Lower level cases often involve increasing support and guidance to the students and families. However in the rare case that a school feels a child is in imminent danger of serious abuse, they might need to contact agencies outside of school support systems.
Here are some possible actions a school might take:
Keeping a record of concerns and outcomes is a vital part of safeguarding at school. It helps to protect everyone in the school community by demonstrating that concerns are taken seriously, investigated, and acted upon (or determined to be unfounded). Documentation helps determine if there is a consistent pattern of low-level concerns that might signal there is a larger issue taking place. All documentation of safeguarding concerns should be stored in a safe, locked location to protect the privacy and confidentiality of those involved.
A note about confidentiality. It is important during all phases of the investigation that privacy and discretion are upheld. Only people who need to know the information about the allegation should be informed or questioned. However, strict confidentiality cannot always be guaranteed. In most countries, school personnel are mandated reporters, which means they must share information to appropriate people/agencies about a child who is in danger.
Other Policies and Procedures
A child safeguarding policy provides the framework for a school’s commitment to community safety and well-being. Other policies also support this effort and should exist alongside the safeguarding policy. Here are some examples:
In summary, a comprehensive child protection policy and procedure for managing safety concerns should be the cornerstone of a school’s approach to student well-being. A safeguarding policy sits alongside other policies and procedures that clarify the rights and responsibilities of all members of the community. There are many resources to assist organizations in developing good safeguarding policies such as The Council of International Schools and Keeping Children Safe. You can also contact the author at her website.
Stephanie Johnson is a clinical social worker with over 20 years of experience working in international communities around the world. She consults with schools and counsels expats to help build healthy systems and happy lives abroad. She currently lives in Croatia and can be found at http://www.stephaniejohnsonconsulting.com/.