Child abuse rises a day after school newsletters are released – but only when children get their grades on a Friday, a study in Florida suggests.
The curious discovery frightened the researchers, who imagined that abuse could increase regardless of the specific day the children had their grades.
But the study of reports for a direct line of child abuse that included broken bones, burns and other confirmed abuses found the opposite. An increase only occurred on Saturdays after a newsletter on Friday. Although the overall rates were small, there were almost four times as many cases on these Saturdays as on other Saturdays. No apparent connection between newsletters and abuse was found on other days of the week.
"Curiously, we know that many parents will beat up their children or use corporal punishment if they are not satisfied with schoolwork," said Melissa Bright, a psychologist at the University of Florida, the lead author.
Punishment can become abusive when children do not take classes the next day and parents find that injuries can go unnoticed, the researchers said, noting that teachers are required to report suspected child abuse. Or it may be that severe punishment is less likely on weekdays when parents are too busy to focus on bulletins, Bright said.
But she acknowledged that these theories are speculations and that the findings are not proof.
The study was published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.
The researchers reviewed links to a Florida child abuse hotline and school report release dates in most of Florida's 67 counties during the 2015-2016 school year. Nearly 2,000 cases of physical abuse in children aged 5 to 11 confirmed by child welfare authorities were included.
There was an average of just over 0.6 cases of abuse per 100,000 children on Saturdays after a Friday bulletin, compared with just under 0.2 cases per 100,000 children on other Saturdays. The mean was less than one per day because many days were included in the analysis. But in a state like Florida, with a school-age population of just over 3 million children, that could amount to 19 cases of bulletin-related abuse, compared to 5 on other Saturdays, the researchers said.
External experts noted limitations in the study, including no evidence that children who were abused received low scores and no information on when parents first learned of student grades. But they said the study was helpful in highlighting that child abuse and corporal punishment are still very common, although rates have declined since the 1990s. Rates were 9 per 1,000 US children in 2016 compared to 13 per 1,000 in 1990.
Robert Sege, a Boston pediatrician and professor of medicine at Tufts University, said bad grades should be a time for parents to find out what is causing their children's difficulties. "There is no place for corporal punishment for school failure, because it does not work and does not understand the point."
Sege is the lead author of a policy update from the American Academy of Pediatrics, released last month, that he recommends against corporal punishment and beatings.
An editorial published with study said that the United States deserves a C-minus "for effective discipline strategies."
Changing a newsletter's release day can reduce some abuse, the editorial said, "but that will not solve the bigger problem: it's still socially acceptable to reach a child to correct their behavior."
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