When Report Cards Go Out on Fridays, Child Abuse Increases on Saturdays, Study Finds

Report card day can provoke anxiety and dread among students. It may also lead some of them to fear for their physical well-being.

A new study found a nearly fourfold increase in confirmed reports of child abuse on the Saturdays immediately after the distribution of report cards at Florida public schools.

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics on Monday, focused on children ages 5 to 11 and relied on reports called in to the Florida Department of Children and Families abuse hotline during the 2015-16 academic year.

Melissa A. Bright, the lead author of the study, said the idea for the research arose from the personal accounts of pediatricians and teachers who saw a pattern of abuse shortly after report cards were released. Dr. Bright, a researcher at the University of Florida who focuses on child maltreatment, said some teachers told her they worried about some of their students after grades were distributed.

Dr. Randell C. Alexander of Jacksonville, Fla., a pediatrician who specializes in treating victims of abuse, said that for years he and his colleagues had heard children recount episodes of violence arising from unsatisfactory grades. They would see children with black eyes, marks from belts and electrical cords, and at times more serious injuries, he said.

“When you say, ‘How did you get it?,’ they say it’s because of their report card,” said Dr. Alexander, an author of the study and the chief of the child protection and forensic pediatrics division of the University of Florida’s College of Medicine, Jacksonville.

When doctors asked parents why they hit their children, sometimes they would answer, “Because they got a C,” he said.

Researchers set out to collect data that could shed light on whether there were patterns in the timing of the abuse.

“We know a lot about what predicts child abuse,” Dr. Bright said. “But we don’t know when. If we have a better idea of when child abuse happens, then we can target our prevention efforts more effectively.”

Researchers were surprised to find an association between verified reports of abuse and report cards only when the grades were released on a Friday.

On weekdays, caregivers may have been too “distracted” to punish their children, researchers speculated. Dr. Bright added that children might have been spared punishments on weekdays because they would be attending school the next day, and teachers are legally bound to report evidence of abuse. Alcohol use by caregivers on weekends might also have played a role, she added.

The link cited in the study was by no means definitive, however.

Researchers did not seek to verify that a disappointing report card was the direct cause of instances of documented abuse, or to narrow down the child abuse cases only to students attending public schools. The study also looked only at public schools that distribute paper report cards, excluding potential reactions from caregivers who looked at grades online. And, of course, the data excluded instances of child abuse that went unreported.

The study analyzed 1,943 verified abuse cases called in to the hotline from the 64 counties that publicly released their report card distribution days, which typically occur four times a year.

Of the counties researchers tracked, Fridays were the most popular day to release report cards, accounting for about 31 percent.

In the period covered by the study, the hotline received more than 167,000 calls regarding children in the specified age range, but only about 7 percent of the calls were verified as physical abuse.

“Physical abuse included physical injury, bizarre punishment, asphyxiation, burns, bone fracture or internal injuries,” the study said.

It focused on what researchers identified as corporal punishment that “crossed the line,” Dr. Alexander said.

Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics released its most strongly worded policy statement yet on corporal punishment, advising parents that they should not spank their children because it is harmful and ineffective. In Florida, corporal punishment in the classroom is also a subject of debate. State law permits paddling students, but each school district can set its own policy.

Researchers are planning more work to definitively explain the reasons behind physical abuse at home. This preliminary data gave educators and health care professionals the opportunity to try to reduce cases of child abuse, wrote Dr. Antoinette L. Laskey, the chief of the child protection and family health division of the University of Utah, in an editorial for JAMA Pediatrics.

Dr. Bright said one practical solution would be shifting report card distribution from Friday to a day earlier in the week, giving teachers an opportunity to keep tabs on their students after they get their grades.

But Dr. Laskey said that solutions needed to go deeper than just changing the calendar. Pediatricians and educators should be trained to talk with caregivers about supporting their children to work hard in school.

“The answer is not spanking or hitting or whipping them,” she said. “It’s a healthier approach. It’s talking with them. ‘Why are you having trouble in school? How can we do better?’”

Follow Julia Jacobs on Twitter: @juliarebeccaj.

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