- Associated Press - Saturday, April 29, 2017

NEW CASTLE, Pa. (AP) - School is where abuse is often identified. A student shows up with a black eye, or a painful arm. Or they confide to a teacher that someone is hurting them. School staff, who are mandatory reporters of child abuse, are trained to recognize the signs. The first step when abuse is suspected is a trip to the school nurse to assess the injury.

New Castle High School guidance counselor Stephanie Gibson said the school makes a report and faxes it to Childline, which is the state level of Children and Youth Services.If there is a safety issue, someone from CYS will come before the end of the day to take custody of the student. A student who faces harm at home may be lodged elsewhere. Or medical treatment may be sought for a student who is afraid they will harm his or herself. They might arrange for medical treatment or notify a parent, depending on what type of harm the student faces.

Sometimes, the signs are more subtle and it is the school truancy officer who discovers abuse. The type of abuse New Castle District Truant Officer Rick Eagle sees most is neglect.

“Truancy is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Eagle. “There is always something else going on,” said the certified home and school visitor/school social worker.


In days gone by, truants and their parents were summoned to court and fined. But not today, at least not in the New Castle district.

“Fines are useless; they don’t have the money to pay,” Eagle said.

Because a legal issue is at stake - truancy is a dependency violation under state law - violators could go through the courts. But in New Castle’s school district, they are diverted to an informal “Truancy Court” presided over by Master Susan Papa.

Last school year, Eagle referred around 120 truancy cases to Truancy Court, and so far this year there have been 111. The aim is to discover the problem causing truancy and deal with it.

“Truancy Court has been a big help to me,” Eagle explained. “I don’t see much recidivism at all.”

He said he’s worked in four other school districts and never had this tool prior to working in New Castle.

Papa has options to deal with the problems of the families of truants. She can send parents to parenting classes, or, for more serious cases to Cray Truancy, which through Children and Youth Services, provides intensive treatment to 20 to 40 students per year. For more serious cases, there is also Multi-discipline Systemic Therapy through CYS, which focuses on a family, sending professionals into the home and having “wraparounds” or one-on-one aides who go to school with the students.

However, if parents will not comply with the recommendations of the truancy court, Papa can then hold a formal court hearing on the truancy charges.


Eagle estimated that 20 percent of truancy court problems involve sexual and physical abuse. Some students are living with a parent at the Crisis Shelter of Lawrence County because of domestic abuse. If they are 18 or over, they can seek lodging at the Crisis Shelter if there is abuse at home.

Working along with Eagle in the district is Lindsey Murphy, the outpatient-based school therapist for the Human Services Center. Murphy works in the schools, often with children referred by Rick. She said the number one problem she sees is neglect. Parents or guardians don’t bother to wake their children up for school or give them the necessary support to get an education.

The reasons are many. Sometimes they are parents who did not find education important in their lives. Sometimes a student is pregnant and may be embarrassed to go to school. There is sexual abuse, sexual assault, verbal and physical abuse by parents or guardians or even by other children. There are grief issues from deaths or accidents or issues such as parents who have left a student living with grandparents.

Murphy said once she identifies the problem, “I focus on what is going on currently, before dealing with the past.”

She does an intake evaluation of the student at the high school and sets a goal. Murphy has been at the district less than a year but has already had a few students meet their goals. When a student “graduates” therapy, she lets them know they can call her if they need her again.

She said in Pennsylvania, a 14-year-old is in charge of his or her own mental health. But the rules are more strict for students under 14 and there are limits to counseling unless their parents participate.

Eagle said he goes into action when there are three unexcused absences. Sometimes, it is just a matter of a parent who doesn’t understand they are supposed to submit an excuse for absences.

And he is in charge not only of New Castle public schools, but the district’s alternative and cyber schools, Cray Crossroads behavioral classroom, residential students, St. Steven’s severe behavioral class in Zelienople, special education classrooms and others. During the process that follows a student being identified as truant, Eagle serves as liaison between agencies, courts and families.


Back at school, New Castle students who have gone through Truancy Court are monitored, along with other students deemed at risk, through a Student Assistant Program.

The SAP is a school safety net for students who face problems, whether abuse, poverty, emotional or academic issues, or simply being new to the school.

At New Castle High School, new students meet at least once with a group including teachers, administrators, and representatives from Human Services and Drug and Alcohol. Students new to the district will meet with the group because they are likely to be at risk academically or socially. The SAP will make sure another student will show them around, sit with them at lunch, and familiarize them with the school routine. They keep meeting with the student as long as there may be a need.

The initial referral might come from a teacher, a staff member, even a student. Anyone in the school who notices a problem can report it.

The group is not unique to New Castle. Eagle said these groups were mandated following the Columbine High School shootings which took place in 1999. The hope was to identify troubled students and deal with any problems before they become major.

The group does not only deal with social issues. It is also always on the lookout for students with material needs. During Christmas and holidays they ask teachers to identify kids who might need a gift bag. At Thanksgiving there are turkeys for those who might go without. If a student’s wardrobe seems sparse, they can supplement it from a collection. If a student is living on their own, the group might help with food and shelter needs. Much of this type of help is derived from a collection taken among the school’s staff members.





Information from: New Castle News, https://www.ncnewsonline.com

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