There was a nearly 300% increase of the incidence rate of verified child abuse on Saturdays following a Friday report card release compared to non-release Saturdays, according to a retrospective study.
A review of a Florida child abuse hotline database found a significant increase in reported rates of verified child abuse on Saturdays following a Friday report card release (incidence rate ratio [IRR] 3.75, 95% CI 1.21-11.63, P = 0.02), reported Melissa Bright, PhD, of the University of Florida in Gainesville, and colleagues.
However, report card releases on Monday through Thursday were not linked with increased incidence rates of verified child abuse, the authors wrote in JAMA Pediatrics.
“Children who receive poor grades or negative remarks on their school report card may be at risk of physical punishment if their performance is not to the parent’s standard or if they are reported misbehaving, inattentive, or disruptive in the classroom,” the authors wrote. “Importantly, short-term consequences associated with physical abuse include poor academic achievement, emotional and behavioral problems, and conduct disorders.”
Antoinette Laskey, MD, of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, noted in an accompanying editorial that these findings likely reflect parents disciplining their children for poor academic performance after receiving their report cards. But that researchers found an increase in abuse after a Friday report card release is “more troubling,” she wrote, since this may imply that parents are hitting their child on a weekend, when they may not be seen by their teachers or adults who are mandated to report suspected abuse for several days.
Bright and colleagues also noted the possibility that these findings could be a result of caregivers being occupied by their own work schedules throughout the week, and they therefore may have more opportunities to react negatively to a child’s report card when it is released on a Friday.
In her editorial, Laskey said that although no studies have shown that corporal punishment leads to positive behavioral change and that physical abuse can have lasting affects on a developing child, the practice is still legal in the U.S., and many families, “raised with spanking, slapping, switching, or ‘whooping’ as a way of life,” still practice it.
“Changing a report card release date may cause some change in the number of physical abuse cases, but it will not solve the larger issue: it is still socially acceptable to hit a child to correct their behavior,” she wrote.
Bright and colleagues collected data from the Florida Department of Children and Families child abuse hotline and recorded dates of report card release for public Florida schools across 64 counties. They observed a 265-day window to account for summer, and limited their data to calls that became verified cases of physical abuse, including physical injury, bizarre punishment, asphyxiation, burns, bone fracture, or internal injuries.
The authors said they focused on children ages 5-11 because “this is the age range for which the child abuse pediatricians believed they observed increases in physical abuse after report card release,” and that of children who would receive report cards, primary school-age children have the highest rates of corporal punishment and physical abuse, they noted.
Of the approximately 168,000 calls to the child abuse hotline, 1,943 verified cases of abuse in children ages 5-11 were included in the study. Of this sample, 58.9% were boys and the average age was about 8. Nearly half (48.2%) were white, while 41.3% were black.
In the final model, researchers found adjusted incidence rates were significantly lower on school holidays (IRR 0.41, 95% CI 0.32-0.53, P < 0.001), significantly higher in urban counties (IRR 1.80, 95% CI 1.11-2.90, P = 0.02), counties with higher rates of child maltreatment as of 2014 (IRR 1.36, 95% CI 1.15-1.61, P < 0.001), and counties with higher grade retention rates (IRR 1.24, 95% CI 1.01-1.53, P = 0.04), the authors report.
Bright and her team said in the study that it was important for future studies to examine additional factors such as days missed from school after report card release, the quality of report cards, or parental beliefs about corporal punishment, they note.
Researchers wrote that the number of verified cases of physical abuse as well as the number of report card release days were small, and may limit the data. Additionally, they noted that the number of cases is limited to those that result in calls, and since many cases of abuse may go unreported, this number may in fact be underestimated. The data also only included children who attended public school and had hard copy report cards, and it therefore may not be generalizable to children in private schools or who receive online report cards, the authors reported.
This project was supported by grants from the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.
The authors did not report any relevant disclosures.