Security and Safety

The security and safety of your students and employees are of the utmost importance and should be a top priority. In recent years, school leaders have reevaluated their safety practices in light of school shootings, COVID-19, and increased awareness around sexual misconduct. A safe environment enables the students to focus on their education and fosters healthy social behaviors. Research on the topic has shown that feeling unsafe at school negatively impacts student achievement and increases drop-out rates. When we refer to safety, we are referring to a number of different areas: physical, emotional, social, and cyber. 

In the last decade, parental concerns have shifted from educational programming to student safety. While curriculum and achievement are important to parents, they are increasingly concerned about how to keep their children physically, emotionally, psychologically, and electronically safe. Below, we’ll cover the different areas of security and safety within your school.

It is critical to understand your school’s current climate and culture since those are underlying aspects of what drive safe and unsafe school behaviors. Surveying your students and employees is an effective way to have quantitative data around climate and culture. You can use this data to change policies and/or incorporate training that will set expectations and drive positive behavior. You should also examine each aspect of physical, emotional, psychological, and electronic safety, as outlined in the sections below.

Physical Safety

Physical safety for students and employees can range from campus culture to environmental safety to greater threats, such as school shootings. The rise of school shootings understandably has many parents concerned about their children’s safety, therefore many schools have made efforts to increase physical safety practices. Understanding the concerns of the faculty, staff, students, and parents will provide a comprehensive understanding of perceived school safety to guide schools as they cater to the specific needs of the community. Therefore, your school should consider working closely with local departments of safety and consider hiring a vetted firm to do a physical risk assessment of your buildings, lighting, walkways, and campus. While these practices may not prevent incidents, they are likely to reduce the risk. Doing this work sends an important message to your community about the school’s commitment to maintaining a safe environment for everyone.

They would be noting things such as, but not limited to: [School Safety and Security 2020: Is My Child Safe at School?]

Your school should record and address incidents such as, but not limited to: 

While the physical safety of students and employees is essential, these efforts must be coupled with emotional, social, and cyber safety measures to ensure your students are protected from both psychological and physical threats. 

Emotional Safety

Emotional safety for students and employees is critical for a positive learning and work environment. While schools can’t protect against all forms of stress and challenge, they can work hard to address issues of anxiety and stress that negatively impact students and faculty to provide resources and strategies that can improve the emotional wellbeing of the school. A student’s sense of emotional safety within the school environment has been tied to academic and social-emotional success. It is essential for your school to take into account the wide range of emotional needs of the community in order for your students to thrive. Implementing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculums catered to each age group has been tied to children’s positive academic and social outcomes. Addressing your school’s emotional safety needs will serve students in their long-term social and academic careers, and help foster a culture of trust between school leadership and students.

School staff and policymakers should note things such as, but not limited to:

Creating an emotionally safe classroom environment supports the well-being of your students, therefore teachers must have an understanding of their potential impact on the classroom climate. Ensuring that your students have access to the proper tools and resources to thrive academically and emotionally in and out of the classroom should be a priority. Providing students with tools to self-regulate and feel confident in themselves will increase comfort levels in the classroom. 

Social Safety

Social Safety focuses on creating an identity-affirming environment for all students that represents and celebrates diversity. Bullying and harassment are disproportionately rooted in issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and identity. Understanding the diversity of experience and background of your student body and creating an environment that they find inclusive and welcoming is essential to eliminate risks of discrimination and exclusion in and out of the classroom. 

Potential threats to your school’s social safety include, but are not limited to:

School leadership should address both student and employee perceptions of and experiences concerning social safety to obtain a clear understanding of the community as a whole. It is your school’s responsibility to clearly communicate findings and adjust classroom and teaching procedures accordingly.

A socially safe school climate includes, but is not limited to: [How to Help All Students Feel Safe to be Themselves]

A socially safe school environment will open a range of opportunities for students to learn more about themselves and their peers. It is important for your school to understand the psychological impact of both emotionally and socially unsafe environments on the learning process in addition to potential physical threats.

Cyber Safety

Despite the wide range of benefits the internet brings to students, your faculty and staff must also have an understanding of the risk factors and threats that may be impacting your students’ well-being. In light of COVID-19, educators have utilized technology more than ever before, uncovering a need for cyber safety education and regulation.  Creating and implementing clear cyber safety policies for students and employees will teach students how to access the benefits of the internet while also understanding the dangers. Your school should evaluate existing cybersecurity regulations and work to fill the gaps to protect students from harm.

Threats to your school’s cyber safety include, but are not limited to: [Cyber Safety Considerations for K-12 Schools and School Districts]

In line with your school’s emotional and social safety concerns, threats to your school’s cyber safety can have similar impacts on a student’s emotional well-being and learning processes. It is important for educators and parents to be aware of the behaviors that may signal a breach in cyber safety.

Warning signs of cyberbullying or victimization include, but are not limited to: [Cyberbullying Warning Signs]

Administrators should also assess existing rules and protocols around cyber safety and may lead to adjustments in technology use procedures.

Preparedness and Prevention measures should include but are not limited to: [CyberSecurity Alliance]

Teaching safe internet practices is more important than ever with the rise of technology use in the classroom and at home. Improving your school’s cyber safety will help protect your students from harm and help them develop tools to use the internet safely and wisely. 

Assuring that your school has the essential information and resources for employees and students around creating a healthy learning environment requires you to address details related to physical, emotional, social, and cyber safety. Policies and procedures must be widely available and any changes to them must be communicated to students, staff, and parents to keep the community aware and accountable. This information will also empower the community to speak up when they see or hear about inappropriate behavior. It is critical that your school address all areas of safety and security to ensure that the school is a safe place to learn and grow. Learning Courage recommends involving students in the development of new protocols and procedures because it will provide leadership opportunities and help administrators gain a deeper understanding of the needs of the student body. Engaging students in the process also fosters a culture of trust between the students and teachers, which is essential in maintaining school safety. 

A Crisis Is Coming - Is Your Board on Board?

Our friend and well respected legal voice in the work reducing and responding to sexual misconduct, David Wolowitz, wrote an important and useful article in the July/August issue of Net Assets magazine in 2018.

The article gets to the heart of where incidents can become more problematic for schools than they need to be. Advance planning, training and alignment are the best ways to ensure that you are able to respond quickly, while keeping the care of those harmed at the forefront of your response.

Three of the takeaways from David's article include these (excerpted from the article):

  1. Successful crisis communications hinge on collaborative,
    well-thought-out work between a school’s administration
    and board of trustees.
  2. Prior to any crisis, administrators and trustees must agree
    on three key organizational dynamics: respective roles,
    guiding principles and information-sharing.
  3. Board members must be trained in the importance of
    protecting privileged, private and sensitive information, and
    all relevant parties should train for a crisis.

To read the full article, click here.

School and Board Leadership

No student should have to fear for their own safety while attending school. Your school must be safe and supportive in order for effective learning and teaching to take place. Unfortunately, 1 in 4 females and 1 in 6 males are victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18 according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.  What’s more troubling is that these statistics are based only on reported incidents. United Educators estimates that as much as 90% of abuse goes unreported.

What’s more, the way those who choose to report abuse are treated in the aftermath of an incident can either add to their trauma and support their healing.  Increasingly, today’s school leaders recognize the importance of focusing on caring for the individuals over the institution: an approach that actually ends up providing equal protection for the institution.

Taking a survivor-centric approach requires an institutional commitment and a process that supports it.  The roadmap for this is laid out in policies and procedures and handbooks, and it must be supported by both the decision-making process and leadership of your school.  The Head of School and the Board Chair play a critical role in managing the school’s response to sexual misconduct and abuse, and they should discuss and agree on your school’s practices and approaches prior to dealing with incidents. In our view, alignment between the Head of School and Board Chair (with agreement from the Board) about the approach and strategy for responding to reports of misconduct is perhaps the most significant determinant in achieving an outcome that minimizes trauma and maximizes healing. Other administrators and faculty members also play crucial roles in reducing instances of sexual misconduct and creating an informed, safe, and supportive school community. This document outlines recommended approaches to governance, highlighting the importance of both reducing sexual misconduct and abuse incidents and responding effectively when they are reported.

Leadership Alignment

When Heads of School and their Boards are aligned on the approach for handling incidents, it means they are in agreement on how to approach and respond to sexual misconduct reports. Alignment allows your leadership team to focus on what needs to be done rather than on negotiating how to respond. Conversely, a lack of alignment can lead to deeper trauma for victims, exacerbate community mistrust, lengthen the duration of the incidents, increase your school’s financial burden, and ultimately can also increase leadership turnover.

If the Board Chair is not sufficiently available to participate in the committee - or if there are other logical reasons for this - another person from the executive committee should replace the Chair.

Governance Structure

When creating committees, the groups need specific deliverables, and individuals must also have clear roles.  As it relates to responding to reports of sexual abuse and misconduct, it allows administrators, Board members, and employees to have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities. These structures are designed to establish and maintain clarity about who is involved in different pieces of the process such as decision making, supporting, investigating, communicating, etc. Creating this clarity is critical for decision-making and taking action during these highly charged and often emotional circumstances.  Supporting and maintaining strong leadership also ensures that your school is doing a thorough job and is diligent about keeping students safe.  And it leads to more productive and effective action. 

Responding to Sexual Misconduct and Abuse: Response Team/Taskforce

We recommend using a Response team/Task Force.  A “Response Team” or “Task Force,” is separate from the regular discipline committee.  The role of a Response Team is to handle all the moving parts of handling reports of sexual misconduct and abuse. We recommend that you have two response teams. One should focus on responding to current student-on-student abuse. The other would be gathered in response to reports of historic abuse or current adult-on-student abuse. These two groups serve different purposes. The Response Team responding to reports from current school members has a very different duty of care because you are often dealing with minors. Historic abuse reports, however, typically come from adults. And there is no immediate need for medical attention. The composition of these committees will likely vary slightly from school to school, but we recommend the following compositions:

Current student-on-student misconduct and abuse teams often include the Head of School, Dean of students, Dean of Residential Life (if applicable), School Counselor, Division Director (where appropriate), School Nurse, and the Title IX Coordinator/Wellness Coordinator (New York State Association of Independent Schools).  Since the Title IX Coordinator/Wellness Coordinator is trained to receive reports and address them, they can help the team respond appropriately. This team will likely also consult outside legal counsel. Depending on the severity of the case and the potential for it to become a public story, there should also be a communications professional (in-house or outside professional) to ensure there is a consistent approach and response. For maximum transparency, information about the composition of the response team or task force should be displayed on your school’s website.

Historic misconduct and abuse and any current adult-on-student abuse team should include the Head of School, the Board Chair, and one or two other Board members (possibly from the executive committee). You might also want to include the Assistant Head and a trained counselor. This committee will also consult legal counsel and will require a communications professional (in-house or contracted). The Head of School should be the primary point person because that is typically the person with whom the reporting party wants to speak.

To ensure that these teams are adequately prepared to respond to reports, they should undergo training about sexual misconduct, abuse, trauma, and other important topics. The teams should also have established protocols and policies and procedures and all members should be familiar with those. In addition, we recommend that teams regularly review and, if necessary, revise the protocols and policies and procedures. 

Whenever your school receives any report of sexual misconduct or abuse, the person leading the team determines the immediate course of action and includes the others on the team for input, meeting together, as necessary. The Response Team should be sure to closely follow your school’s policies and procedures (or grievance procedure).  This may seem obvious, but it is not uncommon to modify or inadvertently skip steps in policies and procedures in moments of pressure and stress.  Adhering to these practices will protect the school. Conversely, veering from approved procedures opens your school up to liability as well as potentially creating unintended harm.

We recommend that the response teams create a safe recordkeeping system for reports of sexual misconduct and abuse, including how reports are addressed, actions taken for both the reporting and responding parties, investigation outcomes, policy enforcement, and prevention efforts. This system will help administrators identify patterns or systematic problems with responding effectively to sexual misconduct and abuse.  It will also help you improve your school’s system through training, policy improvement, and identifying repeat offenders.

Reducing Sexual Misconduct and Abuse:

Safety Committee/Health and Wellness Committee

While you should have a response team charged with responding to reports of sexual misconduct and abuse, the greatest long-term impact will come from focusing on reducing incidents. This effort at schools is often driven by the people responsible for diversity, equity, inclusion, and wellness and should be supported by others interested in maintaining a safe school environment.  The objective is to evaluate what your school needs, monitor the impact of the activity, and adjust regularly to ensure you’re addressing areas you’d like to improve.  

It’s also useful to promote your school’s practices for ensuring student safety from sexual misconduct and abuse. Putting this information on your school’s website demonstrates your school’s commitment to keeping students safe. In addition to education for employees and students, consider including opportunities to engage parents, alums, and others interested in learning about topics related to reducing and responding to incidents. This helps cultivate a school culture of care and respect. Learning Courage suggests the involvement of multiple people and departments on the committee, which provides various perspectives. See Learning Courage’s page on “Prevention and Training” for more information.

Communication

Communicating about misconduct and abuse is very different for student-on-student versus historic or current adult-on-student abuse. To protect the privacy of the individuals, it’s essential to limit communication within the school community about student-on-student abuse and findings. The other types of abuse require different approaches. All of them require updating the community about the process and findings with as much transparency and consistency as possible. The more communication and transparency there is, the easier it is to maintain or rebuild trust. For more information, see Learning Courage’s page on “Communications Guidelines.” You may also find more information in the “Handling Investigation Findings” section of Learning Courage’s “Historic Misconduct” page.

When school leaders are aligned around building and maintaining a survivor-centric approach to sexual misconduct, schools create the opportunity for the best outcome for all involved.  Alignment in leadership requires advance planning and must be endorsed by both the Head of School and the Board. Even with these endorsements, there is no guarantee, of course, that the process will be simple, linear, or efficient.  But it creates the environment for supporting those who have been harmed, which will reduce the amount of time and resources required to address the issue while also minimizing the trauma experienced by the reporting party.  In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that using a trauma-informed, victim-centric lens in responding to sexual misconduct is the best way to save time and financial resources - in addition to being the morally appropriate way to respond.

Risk Assessment

Minimizing risk is an important aspect of running a school. And few topics conjure as much fear in school leadership as sexual abuse and misconduct. Incidents have a large human, financial and reputational impact on an institution.  In addition to the potential physical and emotional harm caused to members of the school community and the discomfort of facing such a topic, there is the sheer time it takes to investigate a claim, the money involved, and the reputational risk that accompanies each incident and impacts applications, enrollment, and annual giving. So there is no wonder that this topic brings up deep concern for those responsible for risk management.  The good news is that you have resources to help. Perhaps your greatest ally in this work is your insurance provider. They have a vested interest in minimizing your risk in all these areas, and most underwriters have tools available to assess and address the risk that exists at your school.

Assessing risk is most useful to understand where risk exists so you can make a plan to reduce it.  These actions should be done before there is an incident rather than in response to an incident.  Below is a list of areas to assess the risk of sexual abuse and misconduct at your school:

Environmental Scan

It’s important to know where you’re starting from and what has happened in the past.  An environmental scan is the process of gathering information about trends and occurrences and their relationships - both internally and externally. The results can be both qualitative and quantitative. For example, an environmental scan will likely examine budget issues, enrollment fluctuations, fundraising opportunities, and changes in leadership. On the external side, the scan should include changes in public policy, law, economics, demographics, technology, philanthropy, etc. The environmental scan helps you identify risk and shape goals to address areas where you have risk. Performing environmental scans on a regular basis gives you data to understand the impact of your plan. 

Physical Space

Schools often think most of protecting students from dangers outside the school community. It’s also essential to consider how the physical spaces in your school help maintain appropriate boundaries for all members of the community or increase risk. This includes considering lighting, doors with windows, entrances and exits to campus and campus buildings, security cameras, and other aspects of buildings that help maintain safe environments. 

Policies and Procedures

Policies and procedures establish institutional expectations and give you a road map for holding people accountable. These details also tie very closely to the culture of your school.  The policies should underscore the attitudes and behaviors you want to see within the school community.  And for policies and procedures to be effective, they also need to be followed consistently.  Failure to follow policy creates significant risk for your school. It is essential that you review your policies and procedures annually and have a designated team with appropriate training to do so. For additional information, please see Learning Courage’s page “Best Practices In Sexual Misconduct Policies and Procedures.”

School Culture and Climate

Every community has a specific culture. Some are more obvious or easy to define than others.  The culture is an expression of values that are solidified by traditions, lore, and current behavior.  And cultures evolve with different leadership, student attitude, and outside cultural change. It’s important to recognize what the culture of your school is and how that both helps and may hinder the attitudes and behaviors you want to see in your community.  

Administrative / Committee Structure

One way to reduce risk is through planning how to respond when incidents occur. Part of that planning includes identifying the committee or individuals who need to be included in the process and establishing protocols for how to respond and who is responsible for handling the various aspects of each report. For all of these groups, we recommend the individuals receive training on how to respond to incidents in a trauma-informed, survivor-centered manner. 

Current Student Misconduct and Abuse

While we know that preventing incidents is the goal, unfortunately it is unlikely that we will successfully eliminate sexual abuse and misconduct. So it’s essential to have a plan for how to respond when incidents occur. Unlike with other school violations, it is inappropriate to include students in sexual misconduct investigations and disciplinary decisions. For more information, please see Learning Courage’s page “Investigation and Response Practices.” 

Adult Misconduct and Abuse

While less frequent, sexual misconduct incidents between adults and students can occur. You have to have a plan ready for responding to these allegations, whether they happened to existing faculty and students or to individuals who are no longer involved on a daily basis. 

Historic Misconduct and Abuse

Schools that have been operating for any significant period of time are likely to have some history of abuse. It’s the unfortunate truth. Some schools take a proactive approach and send out a letter to alumni inviting them to disclose incidents of abuse, while others prefer to take a reactive approach. At Learning Courage, we encourage schools to be proactive, and we also recognize that this decision should not be taken lightly. However, being proactive gives the school community an opportunity to heal, demonstrating the power of the community and supporting those who were harmed. For more information, please see Learning Courage’s page “Historic Misconduct and Abuse.”

Training

Training is one of the most effective ways of reducing incidents of sexual abuse and misconduct at your school. Training related to sexual abuse and misconduct creates awareness, sets expectations, and identifies responsibilities related to creating and maintaining personal boundaries, healthy relationships, and appropriate sexual interactions.

It is not sufficient to simply meet minimum training requirements. While this type of training sets an expectation, it is generally related to behavior that most would agree are egregious and obvious violations. While establishing this baseline is important, we believe that school communities need to embrace a shared responsibility to preventing sexual trauma. Doing this requires an integrated approach to training that includes a full range of topics and is followed by discussion circles. The training objective should be to create a clear understanding of how to create and maintain healthy sexual relationships and the consequences for those not adhering to that standard.        

At Learning Courage, we recommend a combination of training and roundtable discussions to solidify learning for both students and adults. We also recommend varying the training so the same topics are covered in different ways from year to year. This increases content knowledge and keeps the curriculum fresh. For more information, please see Learning Courage’s page “Prevention and Training.”

Communications

Communicating about incidents of sexual misconduct and abuse can be challenging, which is why having a plan is so important. Schools’ risk can increase dramatically if they don’t properly communicate about incidents of sexual misconduct and abuse. It is tricky to balance confidentiality and transparency, reaching the needs of multiple audiences, using an appropriate tone and understanding the frequency of communication that makes the most sense. Therefore, having a solid communication team and plan is essential to reduce risk and build trust in your school. For more information, please see Learning Courage’s page “Communications Guidelines.”

Board of Trustees

One of the main risks for schools in cases of sexual misconduct occurs when there is a lack of alignment between the administrative leadership and the Board. This can lead to inconsistent communication, leave survivors and their families with deeper trauma, and add significant time and expense to each incident, thereby leaving the school more vulnerable.

Legal

Attorneys play a critical role in understanding risk and partnering with schools. Having a good relationship with your legal counsel and ensuring they understand your school and your school’s values is crucial. In cases of sexual misconduct, their perspective should also be balanced with a consideration of how to best support the healing of the individuals who are claiming harm. 

Insurance

Look at your current policy to understand what coverage is provided. Make sure you know what is included and what isn’t.  Review also the previous policies and coverage because, in the case of historic abuse, your coverage is based on the policy your school had at the time of the incident. Knowing the coverage and the limitations for each of your policies over time will save you time and enable you to be more prepared when incidents occur. Having a strong relationship with your insurance provider will help when you are faced with any kind of hardship. Also, many insurance providers will conduct training and risk assessments for your institution. 

Risk comes in many different forms. Minimizing risk requires understanding where risk exists and creating a plan to address the areas of risk. Sometimes the risk is easy to address, such as adding lights in dark stairways or windows on classroom doors. Other times, like when the risk is embedded into the culture of the school, it takes a concerted effort that can take several years. The first step is to recognize where risk exists and then build a plan to reduce it, wherever possible measuring the results as you go.

The Board's Role in a Sexual Misconduct Investigation

By Lisa Donohue, Board President, Milton Academy

In 2016, my second year as board chair at Milton Academy (MA), we launched a sexual misconduct investigation. There was no manual to guide us through that journey. There was no resource to answer our questions and help ensure that we were taking the right approach. And there wasn’t a resource about what to expect and, more important, how to deal with the unexpected. Through the process, however, I learned that the board and the board chair play a critical role in ensuring realistic goals are established and achieved. 

The board’s role is one of governance—upholding the mission and serving as fiduciaries of the school, thinking long range and strategically. This is distinctly different than the head’s and administrators’ responsibilities of handling the day-to-day operations. However, in times of crisis, the board and the administration may work more symbiotically, and the board and board chair may assume a more direct role. This ensures that boards understand the details of the situation, can accurately assess and authorize necessary resources, and provide informed guidance to the head and administration and respond nimbly to changing circumstances. 

The board’s role is complex, as it combines compassion with fiduciary responsibilities. One cannot overshadow the other but must be linked in driving the best response. Fiduciary responsibilities are a board’s natural remit, and while extending compassion is a less obvious task, listening to those reporting harm and understanding their experiences is critical. It may appear counterintuitive that being compassionate is the best way to protect the interests of the institution, but this has been my experience, and I believe it is morally necessary and fiscally appropriate. 

CRITICAL BOARD WORK 

Adopt a survivor/victim first approach. There are both victims and survivors of sexual abuse. “Victim” is often used when someone has recently experienced sexual abuse, while “survivor” is used for someone who has gone through recovery. Either way, understand that each experience is unique and will personally relate to one of these terms. Follow their lead. Each survivor reconciles their experiences differently. At times, there will be tension between compassion and fiduciary responsibilities. Having a north star in this approach can help guide resolution of that tension. It is important to lead with helping those who have suffered harm. 

Don’t let fear drive your decisions. Particularly at the start, when a survivor first comes forward with stories of harm, the full landscape is usually unclear with much unknown. Fear often drives short term, risk-averse decision-making that can be detrimental to those reporting harm and can prevent learning that can drive needed change for the future. Don’t look to defend or explain the harm that happened. Instead, seek to understand so that you can ensure such harmful situations can’t happen again and that you can better fashion restorative measures. 

Ensure there is board chair–head of school alignment. While it might seem obvious, it is absolutely critical that the board chair and head of school are aligned from the start on process, resources, and communication. The head must operate with the support of the board and board chair and conversely must leverage the board and board chair in decision-making and resource allocation. 

Listen. It is important for survivors who are able to come forward to be heard, to be listened to in a way that makes them comfortable. It may be one-on-one or in a small group setting; it may be on campus or at a neutral location. The key is to let the survivor guide school leaders so that they feel comfortable and are able to share their story. Not everyone will be able to come forward, and that’s OK. But those who do need to be validated and commended for their courage. It is often difficult to listen to details of the misconduct and abuse, but it is so important for the survivor’s journey. 

Empathize. If you haven’t experienced sexual misconduct directly, you can’t begin to know what a survivor is going through—and it is not authentic to imply you do. But you can and need to be highly empathetic. Listen, acknowledge their pain, and, as necessary, apologize. The validation demonstrates and reinforces your survivor-centered approach. 

Form a committee with internal and external resources. One of the first action steps should be the formation of a committee with both internal and external resources and professionals. The board chair should work closely with the head of school to determine the specific composition of the committee, which generally should include expertise in sexual misconduct investigations, communications and crisis management, survivor advocacy, and legal guidance and representation. There are many different firms with expertise in these areas that is specific to secondary schools. It is critical in the situation assessment and decisionmaking processes to take into account the perspectives and advice in these different areas. 

Bring in experienced legal counsel. Having appropriate legal counsel is critical, not only in handling legal claims, potential lawsuits, and settlements, but also in the construction of the investigation. While many schools have legal counsel on retainer, it is wise to consider hiring additional counsel with expertise in key areas, such as settlements, mediation, and litigation of sexual misconduct and abuse. As with other external resources, there are law firms with expertise in this area. 

Provide support services. Offer professional help and access to survivor advocates to both the survivors and the institution’s community. This can include therapists or psychiatrists who have expertise dealing with sexual misconduct and abuse trauma. While some survivors will be well down their journey in dealing with abuse, others are just beginning and need expert help. 

Understand the importance of communication. The right communication, including frequency, tone, and transparency, is critical for all the key audiences, including survivors, alumni, current students and parents, faculty, and other community members. The board’s role here lies in reviewing communication in advance, providing feedback, and being knowledgeable and accessible for any stakeholders who may reach out. 

Conduct an investigation. As allegations are brought forward, it is critical to conduct an appropriate investigation, leveraging an experienced and reputable investigation firm. While difficult, it is important to understand the breadth and depth of any incidences and the failures of the past. A healing journey for the survivors first and foremost, but also for the institution, can only begin with this deep understanding. The work starts with finding the right firm with expertise in handling school investigations. Clarify with the investigation firm that you want them to remain independent in their work. From there, it is critical to think through additional parameters of an investigation. This includes everything from how to solicit responses, how to maintain confidentiality and legal privilege, whether to release a summary of the report or release the entire report, and the implications of any or all of these parameters on future legal proceedings. Last, it is important to recognize that the report can also have an impact or potentially play a role in a survivor’s journey. Boards may encounter accusations that are not corroborated or that are false. It is important that the investigation and investigator is able to corroborate allegations and that the requirements for corroboration are outlined at the start. False accusations, while incredibly rare, can have significant consequences for the accused. 

Maintain or build a close partnership with local authorities. It is critical to have strong working relationships with all the appropriate local authorities, including local police detectives, the Department of Child and Family Services, and the district attorney’s office, to name a few. Most likely the board itself will not have direct relationships with these authorities, but it should ensure that the institutional leadership is working in partnership with these groups for the safety of all children.

Hold insurance companies accountable. Insurance policies past and present need to be reviewed, particularly the insurance policy in place during sexual misconduct and abuse incidences. In older cases, an insurance “archeologist” may be needed to uncover the insurer and the policy applying at the time. Read all the fine print. Coverage becomes important for budgeting, legal assessments, and potential settlements of claims. Generally speaking, insurance companies will look to avoid paying out a claim or a settlement. Part of their avoidance strategy is to draw out discussions and be slow to respond. As such, it is best to engage the insurance companies at the start of the process and be very clear on application of the insurance policy and appropriate riders. Finally, the board should not shy away from being aggressive with any insurance company that is avoiding its contractual obligations. If you have difficulties with an insurer, consider engaging attorneys with a specialty in insurance coverage disputes. 

Update current reporting policies and procedures. While not directly responsible in its governance role, the board should ensure that the school’s administration applies learnings from every aspect of the process to update all current reporting policies and procedures. That includes working with the head and also with the director of human resources and the head of student life. It is critical to ensure an appropriate and safe environment for incidences to be reported and acted on. Policies and procedures should be updated as situations and learning warrant as well as on an annual basis. 

LEADING THE WAY 

At Milton, we didn’t have a playbook, but we learned along the way; we remained agile and made adjustments, and we listened to experts. We held steadfast to our survivor-centric approach. Since the investigation at Milton, we became founding members of an organization, Learning Courage, that helps school leaders reduce and respond to sexual misconduct in their schools. Learning Courage’s mantra of compassion, integrity, and clarity highlight what must be foundational to any board of trustees’ response to sexual misconduct and abuse allegations and an ensuing investigation. 

LISA DONOHUE, a 1983 graduate of Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts, is in her sixth year as board president and 12th year as a trustee at the school.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Independent School Magazine.

Prevention and Training

Training and educating your school’s community is critical to reducing instances of sexual misconduct and abuse and to create a culture of care and respect. We recommend that your school assign a specific individual or even a committee of faculty members to plan and oversee training throughout the school year. Your school should determine a set format and frequency for training and follow that closely. Ideally, your school should also establish annual goals for training and prevention before each school year begins. 

Training should include a mixture of presentation and interaction. The presentation may only happen once a year, but the interaction or discussion should be ongoing throughout the year to solidify the learning and create more comfort with discussion on a topic that some can find challenging to discuss. We suggest that content be updated annually to ensure that it contains the most recent and accurate information that will keep students informed and engaged in understanding how to maintain safe behaviors and protect the community.  It is important that the training on topics that are delivered annually vary each time they are conducted so students and adults stay engaged. We recommend a three-four year cycle. 

Insurance providers and training professionals, including Learning Courage, can help you identify topics to cover and ways to differentiate the training over time so the content remains fresh while reinforcing the standards that must be maintained.

Employee and student training must be mandatory. And those who participate on a committee or are directly involved with responding to resorts of sexual abuse should receive trauma-informed and survivor-centric training to ensure they minimize additional trauma.

As you plan your training, make sure to check both with your insurance company for their recommendations and your state for requirements on sexual harassment training. In addition, this section contains our recommendations for organizing and conducting employee, student, and parent training to prevent sexual misconduct and abuse in K-12 schools.

Employee Training

Minimizing incidents requires equipping everyone in the community with information and tools to help them recognize misconduct and abuse, contribute to a positive school climate, and maintain healthy and professional relationships. To do this effectively, provide regular training and discussion and employ different training modalities to ensure the content remains fresh and employees have multiple ways to understand critical content. Also, keep in mind that those directly involved in responding to reports of abuse must receive specialized training in the areas of trauma and survivor resilience. 

The following topics should be included in employee training:

Student Training

Students must be equipped with tools and information to keep themselves and their peers safe. The content and format of training will vary depending on the age of students, and it is important to make sure that all content is age-appropriate. Some of the following topics apply only to older students. Training for students should generally cover these topics:

Board Training

Board members may be involved in supporting school leadership when incidents of abuse and misconduct occur.  It’s therefore essential that all Board members understand the logic behind using a survivor-informed approach to responding to reports of abuse.  Particularly, recognizing that using a trauma-informed lens and survivor-informed approach is not just the best approach morally, it’s also the most financially-responsible way to handle incidents.  

We also know that when Heads of School and Boards are aligned on this approach, incidents require less time, professional advice, and survivor remuneration.  Learning Courage recommends that Heads of School and Board Chairs (and any related committees) should be properly trained. 

Parent and Guardian Training

We recommend that your school offer optional training and informational sessions to parents and guardians. Parent/guardian training is useful for many reasons. It can help parents/guardians understand risks and the ways they can help keep their kids safe. Training also serves as an opportunity to educate parents/guardians about your school’s expectations for students and approach to student safety. It can be an opportunity to open dialogue between parents/guardians and children, particularly if the training is coordinated. Lastly, training sessions can serve to support parents/guardians as they navigate how to care for children in these complex times—this includes how to parent in this technologically advanced era, strategies and tips for communicating with children and teens, etc. These training sessions should include information about:

Finding the Right Trainers

It is crucial that those conducting training sessions are qualified and experienced. Learning Courage provides training and we encourage you to ask your member representative for help identifying trainers that meet your needs.

Reducing Risk in Remote Learning Environments

Listen to a podcast that Learning Courage Founder, Jamie Forbes, did with United Educators' Senior Risk Management Counsel, Melanie Bennett, about how to reduce risk in remote learning environments. While this was recorded in the context of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the content remains relevant for any remote education setting.