Children may be at higher risk of abuse on if their report cards are released on Fridays as opposed to mid-week, according to a new study in JAMA Pediatrics. Researchers analyzed nearly 2,000 cases of child physical abuse verified by Florida’s child welfare agency for elementary school children, and found that cases were reported at a significantly higher rate on Saturdays in the immediate aftermath of a Friday report card release date.
“Release of report cards on Monday through Thursday was not associated with increased [incidence] of verified cases of child physical abuse the same or the next day,” the authors write. “However, a nearly 4-fold increase in the [incidence] of verified physical child abuse occurred on Saturdays after a Friday report card release.”
This is not the first time scientists have raised an alarm about a potential link between report cards and child abuse. In 1990, school officials in Boston began sending companion letters with report cards, specifically to curb child abuse. Shortly thereafter, Maryland announced the creation of the Public Education Task Force to Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect—a committee “founded on the growing evidence that the incidence of child abuse increases at report card time,” according to a 1991 article in the Baltimore Sun. Advocates gradually began speaking of a “report card reflex”—anecdotal evidence of a spike in child abuse linked to poor grades. “Child advocates in several cities say that when report cards are issued, reports of child abuse go way up,” The New York Times reported in 1992.
But scientific evidence of a link remained in short supply, until now. For the study, researchers reviewed calls to a Florida state child abuse hotline between September 2015 and May 2016, focusing on abuse cases involving children between the ages of 5 and 11. They collected 1943 verified cases of physical abuse, and then ran that data against report card release dates for public schools in each Florida county. They found that “calls resulting in verified reports of child physical abuse occurred at a higher rate on Saturdays after a Friday report card release compared with Saturdays that do not follow a Friday report card release,” according to the study.
It is important to note that the study establishes a correlation between child abuse and Friday report card release dates, but cannot demonstrate causation. The study is further limited by the fact that it focused only on public school data, and only on physical abuse that resulted in calls to Florida’s state hotline. At the same time, the results broadly suggest that school officials may be able to reduce the “report card reflex” and protect children by ensuring that report cards are released mid-week, rather than on Fridays. The question, of course, is why.
Researchers speculate that this effect may be due to the fact that caregivers are too distracted mid-week to become emotionally invested in poor grades. “Thus caregivers may not have the same opportunities to react negatively to a child’s report card when released on a Monday through Thursday,” according to the study. A more disturbing possibility is that parents avoid beating their kids on weekdays, in general, because they know that their children will see teachers and other mandated reporters at school the next day. It is easier to hide weekend abuse.
Even without definitive data, this study alone may provide sufficient reason for school officials to change how report cards are released in their school districts. “To the extent that children who receive poor report cards are punished by their caregivers and that this punishment sometimes crosses the line to physical abuse,” the authors conclude. “Several school district-level or state-level policy changes could be made to reduce the likelihood of physical abuse.”