ALL private schools, be they of a religious or secular orientation, large or small, stand-alone or networked, urban or rural, have a primary responsibility to safeguard the health and well-being of their students. Whatever a school’s philosophical foundation, organizational structure, staffing configuration, or curricular map, the protection of students is a functional prerequisite. Student safety takes precedence in the planning of any school activity, and supersedes all other considerations when determining the allocation of resources. Private schools that cannot ensure the safety and security of their students will not long exist…nor should they.
It would, of course, be untrue to say that acts of abuse perpetrated against students never occur in private schools. Sadly, they do. To deny as much would serve only to expose expressions of concern for student safety as little more than a cynical sham. Rather, it is because we recognize the constant possibility of abuse within our schools that we consistently endeavor to review and improve the overlapping layers of protections put in place to secure the well-being of our students.
If and when those protections should prove wanting, and parents come to suspect that their children are being subjected to so much as a hint of abuse of any kind, our schools want to, indeed need to hear about it. And, in most cases, do they ever! Which is as it should be, even if suspicions should prove to be unfounded, as they sometimes are.
There’s another side to the coin that bears mention. If a private school educator knows, or reasonably suspects that an act of child neglect or abuse has occurred, he/she is obligated by law to immediately make a report to local law enforcement officials so that the matter can be further investigated. Failure to immediately report such known or suspected neglect or abuse exposes the educator (and all “mandated reporters”) to criminal liability.
If, with multiple safeguards in place, and under the best of protective circumstances, acts of abuse will still, sadly, occur, what of the worst of circumstances? What happens when parents commit horrendous acts of abuse against their own children in the privacy of their home, and are permitted by the state to call their home a “private school?” The answer is that private schools will be presumed negligent. As a consequence of the alleged horrific crimes committed by David and Louise Turpin in Perris, California, and the manner in which California law treats home schools, all private schools are liable to be viewed with increased suspicion and concern.
California law generally draws no distinction between private schools and home schools. It is accurate to say that in the current view of the state, every home school is a private school, but not vice-versa. Home schools thus file the required private school affidavit with the California Department of Education, each year. The filing of the affidavit is necessary to exempt school-aged children not enrolled in the state’s public schools from potential charges of truancy.
The California Department of Education publishes an annual Private School Directory in which it makes public the information obtained from private schools in which at least six students are enrolled. Because the home school for which David Turpin filed an affidavit (in which he identified himself as “Principal”) reported an enrollment of six, Sandcastle Day School appears in the state’s Private School Directory, alongside schools affiliated with CAPSO-member organizations. For this reason, some view the matter as a private school issue when, in truth, it is a parental child abuse issue perpetrated by parents in what the state currently permits the public to regard as but one of many private schools.
Fair or not, the tragic acts of abuse that occurred in Perris, California, have triggered calls for increased regulation of private schools. Among the possible array of legislative responses that have already been reported by the press are periodic visits to schools by state authorities and mandated administrations of state achievement tests. There is a certain irony to such suggestions, given that: 1) the chances of getting a member of the Assembly or State Senate to visit a private school are only slightly better than those of winning the PowerBall lottery; and, 2) California law currently prohibits private schools from administering the state’s achievement tests, even if a school wishes to do so.
But let us be neither cynical, nor petty. There’s a serious problem to be addressed, and CAPSO is committed to thinking and working together with state officials and lawmakers to consider reasonable responses. We’ll do our best to see that the specific circumstances that enabled the abuses in question to remain undetected for as long as they did are appropriately addressed, without subjecting our member-organization schools to gratuitous regulations proposed only because there’s an election around the corner. We are always happy to partner with politicians who are genuinely committed to protecting our kids, but we are also committed to protecting our kids from self-serving politics.