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with Justice Marvin Zuker

PHOTO: courtesy of marvin zuker

Justice Marvin Zuker.

Now that many students are e-learning either part time or exclusively, how does that affect Ontario Certified Teachers' duty to report child abuse? It's a question of great concern to Marvin Zuker, justice at the Ontario Court of Justice from 1978 to 2016 and associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto since 1982, who has consulted on College advisories covering several topics, including the duty to report.

"The ability to determine child abuse is much more difficult with kids learning online. Teachers are much less likely to become aware of abuse. And parents could be listening so the child could be fearful to make a disclosure," says Zuker.

Regardless, the duty to report as set out in Section 125 of Ontario's Child, Youth and Family Services Act still stands. We asked Justice Zuker how teachers can best uphold this responsibility in the age of e-learning.

How has the pandemic affected children's safety in terms of abuse?

An environment that may have already been stressful has become more so. And now parents and children don't necessarily have the outlet or escape of going to school or work.

What is teachers' duty to report?

If you're online with a student and he or she has bruises on his or her arms, Section 125 says that is reasonable grounds to suspect. I would ask the student what happened. Then you have to ask yourself if you accept the child's explanation.

What should a teacher do if they suspect abuse?

The requirement is to immediately report the suspicion to Children's Aid. It's crucial for a teacher to document what a student has indicated. I can't stress that enough. The case can take months to get to court. The first question a teacher or principal will be asked by a lawyer for the parent is "How can you possibly remember something that happened months ago?"

What can be done to encourage disclosure during the pandemic?

Unless there is a mechanism created, determining child abuse is much more difficult with kids learning online.

In some jurisdictions, when students click through their teacher's PowerPoint presentations, a pop-up prompt asks them to register how they feel on a sliding scale. The answer is sent directly to the teacher; no one else sees it.

There's a strategy where children can disclose abuse by using hand signals. Students may also disclose abuse through what they have written.

Why is this an important issue?

We hope we can trust the people we are entrusted to. Failure to report is a betrayal of the student. It breeds contempt, compounds trauma and puts children at continued harm. It also sends the message that they don't matter.

I believe in mandatory reporting and training programs. Educate yourself: go to the College website and look at the professional advisory on the duty to report. Know what you are required to do. If we save one child, it's worth it.