SMMUSD HDQTRS — Santa Monica and Malibu public school employees reported 123 suspected cases of child abuse to law enforcement and youth welfare authorities during the 2008-09 academic year, according to a new report that breaks down the number of alleged incidents involving students.

The Board of Education on Thursday is expected to receive the first Child Abuse Report that is now annually mandated under an administrative regulation that was revised in 2008, showing that the number of cases referred to the Santa Monica Police Department and Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services increased 66 percent last year over the 2007-08 school year.

The reason for the increase could be a heightened awareness by district employees who have all undergone training in reporting practices, Mike Matthews, the assistant superintendent for human resources said. State law categorizes district employees as mandated reporters for such cases.

“This (report) is not intended to spur any new actions,” Matthews said. “Our responsibilities is to report these possible cases of child abuse and the authorities investigate that.”

The report breaks down the number of cases by school level and type of abuse, the latter of which was lead by physical abuse with 77 cases, followed by emotional abuse (20), general neglect (15), and sexual abuse (11).

The elementary schools had the highest number of overall reported cases with 52, followed by the middle schools with 37 and the high schools with 34.

One case involved a district employee. Matthews could not comment on the investigation of the employee or whether any action was taken. The rest of the alleged abuse took place outside of the school, whether it was in the home or elsewhere.

The changes in the policies and administrative regulations for child abuse came after a former ESL teacher at Lincoln Middle School was arrested last spring for molesting students. Thomas Arthur Beltran pleaded guilty to multiple counts of sexual molestation involving nine female students back in December.

The county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) received more than 178,000 overall reports to its hotline from Sept. 1, 2008 to Aug. 31 of this year, a figure that doesn’t include referrals.

Once a tip is received, a social worker is assigned to gather information about the child and their family, checking a 10-year-old database to see if there has been similar calls during the past decade. The department then sends the worker to meet with the subject child and any siblings before interviewing the parents or guardian.

“We work very hard to try to get the family the support that they need and depending on the severity of the allegations, there is the option to detain the children, but we prefer not to do that at almost all costs because we believe the children are better off with their families,” Susan Jakubowski, spokeswoman for DCFS, said.

Jakubowski said that because children feel safe in schools, they often develop a rapport with their teachers and confide in any problems at home.

“We have found educators to be very focused in this crucial duty that they have and the bottom line is the department and the schools are all working together to try to give the family the support they need so their children can be raised free from abuse and neglect,” she said.

But reporting on suspicions can be a tough call to make.

Harry Keiley, the president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association, said that he will occasionally get a call from a teacher who is struggling with the decision to notify authorities.

“Although it is a difficult call that teachers have to make, we know that we have to place the safety of children first and in doing so, we take the obligation of being really the protector of children almost as a sacred right that we have during school hours,” he said.

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