December 24, 2018
The Earthly equivalent of Judgment Day is the moment when students receive their report cards. They fear the teacher’s no-holds-barred assessment: How smart is this pupil? How talented? How athletic? How adept and poised in social situations? How determined to succeed?
But, while some students worry they won’t “ace” their grades, others are dealing with more dire misgivings: A new study has found that large numbers of elementary school students are physically abused by their parents after report cards hit home.
The research—conducted by professionals at the University of Florida, Georgia State University, and Harvard University; and published in the December 17 edition of JAMA Pediatrics—found that, across a single academic year in the state of Florida, nearly 2,000 children had been abused after report cards were released on Friday afternoons.
Specifically, when report cards were distributed Monday through Thursday, researchers did not document increased rates of home-based child physical abuse—either on the same day or on the day after the release. However, the researchers found nearly a fourfold increase in the incidence rate of verified child physical abuse on the Saturdays after a Friday report card release.
The study focused on children ages 5 through 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, told The New York Times in an interview that the idea for the research came 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 their students after grades were released.
Dr. Randell C. Alexander of Jacksonville, Florida, a pediatrician who specializes in treating victims of abuse, told the Times 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 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.
Of the counties researchers tracked, Fridays were the most popular day to release report cards, accounting for about 31%.
Dr. Bright told the Times that 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.
Research contact: @juliarebeccaj