Schools have a mission not only to educate children but also to keep them safe. Omaha Public Schools have taken a sound step on that score by strengthening their child abuse and neglect policy.

The OPS board’s unanimous vote this week aligns its policy with state law by requiring that school employees report suspicions of questionable activity “immediately or as soon as practicable” to state Child Protective Services or to law enforcement. OPS employees are to make the report within 24 hours of becoming aware of the possible abuse.

This change has important benefits. It provides needed clarity to staff and administration. And it directs staff to first contact state specialists in child protection, or law enforcement, to report any concerns.

The district’s previous policy, in place since 2012, said employees must first “report such incident or cause a report of child abuse or neglect to be made to the principal,” and then “assure that the matter has been reported” to Child Protective Services or law enforcement.

Eric Nelson, a former principal at Fontenelle Elementary School, is awaiting trial on allegations that he failed to report the behavior of Gregory Sedlacek, a first-grade teacher. Sedlacek was sentenced this year to 50 to 100 years in prison after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting three students.

Prior to 2012, the district’s policy allowed OPS officials to conduct their own investigation instead of contacting police — a policy that rightly received strong criticism.

OPS board member Ben Perlman, a Sarpy County prosecutor, provided helpful context in comments this week, noting that it’s common for OPS staff, students, principals and counselors to appropriately report abuse allegations, helping prosecutors successfully prosecute cases. “I’ve had those cases where children are removed from very dangerous situations,” he said, “and it’s in thanks in large part to the quick response of teachers.” That’s encouraging.

Child abuse stands as one of our society’s most painful challenges. Policies need to encourage safety and proper handling of cases while also affording due process to those accused. The new OPS policy meets that standard by requiring reports to be placed directly in the hands of professionals best equipped to investigate and manage the situation.

Omaha World-Herald