Problems at home have a certain way of spilling over into the school space. We refer to this issue as domestic spillover. Domestic spillover can occur in many forms. As an education professional, you may be forced into the middle of a dispute over which parent can pick the children up from school. You may encounter a parent in the middle of a custody battle who becomes a potential kidnapping threat. An estranged husband of a teacher may visit the school looking to confront his wife. Any instance of domestic spillover poses a great threat to the individuals involved and the safety of the school as a whole. To combat domestic spillover, clear and open communication on behalf of all parties is key.
Why are schools a prime location for domestic spillover? Schools are a constant in the lives of teachers and students. An estranged husband may not know where his family is living, but he knows where his children go to school, or where his wife teaches, and he knows what times they will be in the building. The consistency makes school a prime target. Both teachers and students are susceptible to bringing domestic spillover into the school. Below we will discuss the reasons behind and ways to combat domestic spillover from both teachers and students.
Domestic Spillover Surrounding the Child
Who is allowed to pick up the child from school? Are there any adults in a child’s life who could pose a danger? These are questions often made more complicated by issues like parent separation, divorce or custody battles.
At the beginning of the year, parents will fill out forms authorizing certain people to pick up their children but, as the year goes on, circumstances may change. It is essential that the front office stays aware of any. To keep all children at your school safe in the event of a domestic disruption, the parent and the school each have unique roles to uphold:
Parents are responsible for keeping the school informed of any and all changes that affect the people authorized to pick-up and see their children.
Schools must be aware of changes to enforce them.
Parents are responsible for sharing all legal documents.
If there is a restraining order or another legal document that will impact the child, parents must present the school with a physical copy. At SEC, we get calls from clients when parents verbally share the details of a restraining order. Schools can not and should not enforce a restraining order until they receive a physical copy.
Schools are responsible for enforcing all legal documents:
If a parent has presented the school with a restraining order, the school must enforce it. If the parent does not present the legal document, schools must follow whatever plan is currently in place for the child.
This seems simple enough, but we often run into trouble with parents who are reconciling. Imagine Dad has a restraining order against Mom and he has presented it to the school, preventing Mom from picking up their children. The school must enforce the order, no matter what. Even if Dad calls and reports that he and Mom have worked things out, and requests for Mom to be able to pick the children up again, the school cannot allow this. The school can only allow Mom to pick up the child again if Dad presents the school with legal proof that the restraining order has been lifted. This protocol helps keep children safe and helps the school avoid being put in the middle.
Schools must ensure all appropriate staff is aware of new arrangements.
“Appropriate staff” to be made aware depends on the unique situation. If there is a parent who is considered especially dangerous, it may be important to let the entire staff know to be on the lookout. Failing to keep the staff informed could cause problems, especially if a parent who is familiar to the school staff is no longer allowed entry.
Consider a family with parents going through a divorce. Mom typically picks the kids up from school, but Dad picks them up a few times per month. Teachers are familiar with this arrangement and know both Mom and Dad. During the divorce process, Mom takes out a restraining order on Dad and he is no longer allowed to pick the children up from school. It is critical in this scenario that all teachers be made aware of the change so they would know there was a change to the routine.
Schools are responsible for making these responsibilities policy.
If it is not already included, schools should update their policy booklets to include the protocol surrounding domestic disputes. The school should clearly communicate the policy to all new families and to any parents who share safety or custody struggles with you.
When in doubt, call for backup.
Separation, divorce and custody battles are stressful times for families and situations can seem less than black and white. Our clients are welcome to contact us for guidance. The police are also a great resource. If you have any questions about documents, your responsibility, or feel a child is in immediate danger, you should consult the authorities.
Domestic Spillover Surrounding the Teacher
On April 10, 2017, a gunman opened fire at an elementary school in San Bernardino, California, killing one student and one teacher before taking his own life. This was not a random attack – it was a tragic instance of domestic spillover involving a teacher. The shooter, Cedric Anderson was in an estranged relationship with the victim, special needs teacher Karen Elaine Smith. Anderson likely did not know where Smith was living, but he did know where and when she was teaching. A school is a known and consistent location in the lives of teachers and students.
How could this tragedy have been prevented? The shooter did not even have to force himself into the building. According to San Bernardino Police Captain, the shooter signed in normally at the front desk, as he was familiar with the front office staff. Had the front office staff known about the estranged relationship between Anderson and Smith, they might have turned the gunman away at the front desk. While parents may be more likely to bring security concerns surrounding their children to the school’s attention, it is equally important for teachers to raise concerns about their own safety.
Encouraging teachers to share domestic concerns is a delicate task. There is a fine line between asking teachers to share critical safety information and forcing them to reveal personal details about their lives. Schools must work to create an environment where teachers feel safe sharing if there is someone that might put them and the school in danger. Even minimal details can be lifesaving – a teacher could provide a name, vehicle type or license plate model to look out for. We have found it is effective to be clear with teachers about the reason you are asking them to share personal safety concerns. No one wants to be the person to bring danger to the school.
Knowledge is power and, by sticking to clear policies and creating environments of trust, you can create a safer school for everyone in your building.