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. 

If You Ignore Porn, You Aren't Teaching Sex Ed

Respected educator and author, Peggy Orenstein, wrote an important opinion piece in today's NY Times. In it, she argues that the availability of porn online exposes all children to it- like it or not. And ignoring that leaves out an important tool in helping kids understand how to become good sexual citizens. We do no favor to students (and our broader community) when we ignore the presence and role of porn in the education of our children's education about sex. This position is by no means embraced by all. In fact, Orenstein's article is in response to recent outcries from parents who opposed clear, honest, age-appropriate conversations and information relating to sexuality and sex. It is a complicated discussion, but Learning Courage strongly endorses the need to provide language and information in age-appropriate lessons throughout students' education. Frankly, we know what happens when there is limited or no education, leaving kids to figure this critical social behavior out on their own. The experiment continues to fail, and we have more than enough data that supports the need for straightforward talk.

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.

Best Practices In Sexual Misconduct Policies and Procedures

Our goal at Learning Courage is not to simply summarize the content on various topics related to sexual misconduct in schools. We aim instead to identify what we believe are the best practices schools should follow. We believe that having a survivor-centric, trauma-informed, compassionate approach to sexual abuse and misconduct will best help schools mitigate harm and promote healing for both survivors and school communities while also requiring the fewest resources to address.

We hope you will find this information useful for your school and see how, by considering our recommendations, members will have the benefit of understanding how to establish and maintain practices that maximize both school and student safety.

Our approach and philosophy are centered around the belief that it will require our collective wisdom and ongoing effort to improve how we address and reduce sexual misconduct and abuse.

Learning Courage believes that it is critical to have easily accessible information on school websites regarding sexual misconduct and sexual assault.

Schools across the nation have been scrutinized and criticized by the media for their response to sexual misconduct and abuse. Collectively, we have both an obligation and an opportunity to teach and lead on this complex and critical issue facing our youth. Your school’s website is one of your most powerful marketing tools. It is also where prospective families, current families, prospective faculty/staff, educators, and other visitors can learn about your school’s values and priorities. Families and alumni are looking to see if you are proactively addressing issues of sexual misconduct and creating safe learning and working environments for students, where clear expectations and guidelines are outlined. We believe it is best to make this content both easy to find and understand because doing so demonstrates confidence and a commitment to student safety. Learning requires safety.

Too often fear is what inhibits schools from making the courageous decisions needed to address sexual misconduct and abuse directly and compassionately. In reality, fear tends to drive schools and school leaders to make poor decisions that ultimately create more harm – often unintentionally – to people and institutions. Our strong belief is that having a survivor-centric, direct, and compassionate approach to sexual misconduct and abuse helps mitigate harm and promotes healing, not just for those harmed but also for the broader community.

Below you will find a list of what we believe to be the best-in-class practices in policies and procedures related to sexual misconduct and abuse. They are best practices because they meet our priorities of leadership and community safety, and they are survivor-centric. They set clear expectations for students and help build trust with your existing school community and with prospective families

Observed Best Practices

Organizational Alignment

Perhaps the most important observation of schools that have protracted and lingering challenges around sexual misconduct and abuse is that it stems from a lack of leadership alignment between the Board and the School’s administrative leadership. Responding well to reports of misconduct and abuse requires advance planning and discussion. This discussion should start with Board leadership and include topics such as overall approach and philosophy. Waiting to have these discussions when forced to respond to an emergency significantly reduces the opportunity to achieve and maintain alignment. The consequences of failed leadership alignment (human, reputational and financial) can be staggering.

Policy Adherence

While we highlight these as best practices, it is important to note that following practices you have established are even more important than documenting excellent policies. And having the “ideal” best practices alone cannot protect your school or the students from harm. The combination of establishing best-in-class policies and procedures AND following them is the best way to protect everyone in the school community while also minimizing risk to the institution. Following established policies will not only reduce your risk but will also establish credibility and trust among the school community. The opposite is true if policies and procedures are not followed.

Easy to Find

Content on policies and procedures may be found in different places on your school’s website. Making content easy to find demonstrates both your commitment to student safety and your confidence and integrity around the work you have done. Think of different audiences and where they would expect to find the information. Minimize the number of clicks the user has to make to get there.

Warm and Accepting Tone

Policies and procedures are for students and for adults. They should be easy to understand and written in language that is free of legal jargon. The tone should be similar to that of a caring adult communicating to a student in a matter-of-fact way about important information that will keep the student safe. Policies and procedures are designed for safety not to scare students. The information should be easy to understand for readers of all ages.


We believe that more information is better than less. Some schools take the approach that “less is more” when writing policies and procedures. This may give schools more flexibility to handle incidents differently, according to nuance and context. However, the lack of clarity also leaves room for interpretation from all readers and therefore increases the likelihood of confusion. We believe it also can be perceived as a lack of commitment to the work required to keep your community safe.

Clear and Concise

Don’t over-complicate the information in the name of being thorough. The important thing to remember is that the information should include content that is required by law, information that is relevant and specific to your school, and also details that come from peer schools that could also be relevant at your school. 

Specific insight into how to demonstrate your school’s confidence and commitment to strong policies and procedures are outlined in the section below.


As stated above, we believe it should be easy to find information about your school’s policies and procedures on your website. When people type in “sexual misconduct,” “sexual assault,” “sexual abuse,” or “historic misconduct and abuse” on your school’s website, they should be directed to a page that gives them the following links or information. 

  1. Demonstrated Commitment to Student Safety and Well-Being

We recommend that schools dedicate a section of your website to demonstrating your active commitment to student safety and well-being. Particularly in these volatile times where students are experiencing many forms of abuse, harassment and misconduct (not just sexual), community members need to know the school’s commitment to student safety and well-being. You can demonstrate this commitment in many different ways.  What is equally important is to ensure that your school follows stated practices and policies. 

We recommend that all schools have a thoughtfully worded statement about how they care about the safety and well-being of everyone. In this section, often under the “Health and Wellness” section of the website, your school should outline the culture and values you work to sustain. Include how you educate and train students on prevention and response to sexual abuse and misconduct. You may also identify how your school supports various constituents (different divisions where applicable, students, parents, faculty/staff, etc.). Because of ongoing national concerns about adult/student abuse, it is essential that your school establish and follow rigorous hiring practices, including conducting national background checks, training for new employees and ongoing professional development for faculty and staff. By outlining your hiring and training practices for faculty and staff for all to see, your school shows prospective employees, parents, and others how much care you put into maintaining the health and safety of your community.

See Learning Courage’s page on “Commitment to Student Safety and Well-Being” for more information. 

  1. Sexual Misconduct and Abuse Policy

Every school must have an overarching sexual misconduct statement. A general philosophy is first establishing a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual abuse and misconduct.

The goals of the policy should include:

It can also be helpful to articulate specific policies regarding different groups on your campus: High/Upper School, Middle School, Employees for example. 

  1. Create and Name an Oversight Committee Handling Sexual Abuse and Misconduct

Handling cases of sexual abuse and misconduct are incredibly delicate, complex, and time-consuming. They require proper training and expertise for those involved. Therefore, every school should have a separate committee from the regular discipline committee for handling cases of sexual misconduct. The composition of this committee will probably vary from school to school, but it often includes the Head of School, designated Deans, School Counselor, Division Director (where appropriate), School Nurse, designated communications person, Title IX coordinator (where applicable), and Human Resources Officer.  Some oversight committees include the Board Chair, depending on the kind of misconduct, and legal counsel. 

  1. Supportive Services on Campus

Bringing claims of sexual assault and abuse forward can be scary. It is important that the students and adults in the community know that your institution cares about them and wants to hear what happened to them, investigate the reports and provide any necessary support for those involved. Therefore, it is critical that you outline the process for reporting in a clear and compassionate manner, and you identify those designated individuals who are available and accessible to hear reports of misconduct and abuse. 

For those requiring medical help, counseling support, academic or housing modifications, these details should be listed under Supportive Services on campus. This information should also be included in the Health and Wellness section of your school’s website. 

Decision trees are also effective for students and other community members because they visually convey a process and the possible outcomes. Decision trees can help inform and guide students and can be useful for understanding when to use anonymous reporting, how to seek medical or mental health support. The lists of support should include but are not limited to: administrators involved with the misconduct committee, School counselor, School nurse, Deans of students, and more. To make it easy to get the necessary help, cell phone or other monitored phone numbers should be included. Those responsible for fielding calls must be appropriately trained. See the “Supportive Services” section for a sample graphic that should be readily accessible at all schools.

In this section of the website, it is helpful to define confidentiality, mandated reporting, immunity, and sanctuary policies so the reporting party is aware. Decision trees can be helpful here as well.

In addition to immunity and sanctuary policies, schools often have other policies in place that support students who might be struggling, not only as it relates to sexual misconduct and abuse. These supports might include the ability to have some academic modifications if performance begins to slip, the ability to switch classes if the alleged perpetrator is in the same class, the ability to shift housing or living circumstances, and the opportunity to take a leave of absence to name a few. 

See Learning Courage’s page on “Supportive Services” for more information. 

  1. Incident Reduction and Training

A critical element of reducing incidents of sexual misconduct and abuse on school campuses is having a robust education, incident reduction, and training program at your school. There are many constituents at schools and the reduction and training should be designed specifically for each constituency: students, parents/guardians, faculty, staff, and trustees. These should be adapted annually and based on overarching strategic goals established by the school based on best practices.

See Learning Courage’s page on “Prevention and Training” for more information. 

  1. Reporting Sexual Misconduct and Abuse

Reporting sexual misconduct and abuse can be scary and intimidating, not only because the reporting party may be traumatized by the event, but also because the reporting party is likely also concerned about all of the unknowns and possible implications that arise with reporting. To reduce some of these unknowns, it is critical that schools are specific about who victims/survivors can go to if they are concerned about abuse, what the school’s commitment is to its community, what resources are available to victims/survivors both on and off-campus, and how they will be supported. For example, stating that a student should go to a “trusted adult” assumes that there is an obvious choice for that student. It also assumes that the adult they choose has been trained in how to handle a report. Most schools have a School Counselor (some have a Title IX Coordinator/Wellness Coordinator) who is trained to notice and respond to abuse. However, we recommend there be a few others on campus who are trained as well.  Best to be specific here, rather than general. Providing helpful options is also useful, as long as the list is not too long or confusing.

Reporting options should be highlighted in multiple places including, but not limited to, the school’s website, the student handbook, and the employee handbook. The most important thing is to have supportive, easy-to-follow instructions for students, knowing it is scary to consider reporting. Guidelines on how or when to report to authorities should also be included. Examples include decision trees or a whistleblower hotline like EthicsPoint or Lighthouse that is completely confidential and available 24 hours a day.

See Learning Courage’s page on “Reporting Requirements” for more information. 

  1. Investigating and Responding to Current Reports of Misconduct and Abuse

Any incidents of sexual misconduct, assault and abuse seriously impact your school community. Often there are strong emotions, conflicting stories, and complex dynamics involved in these cases. Because you are in the business of caring for student safety and well-being, it is critical that the process used to investigate and respond to reports of misconduct and abuse be clearly outlined, survivor-centric and trauma-informed. This clarity allows the administrators and students to follow clear protocols that focus on maintaining the strong values and standards of your school while also minimizing further unintentional harm. Investigations and responses to reports of sexual misconduct and abuse are time-consuming and emotionally intense processes, so it is very important that those involved are trained and know the protocols to follow.

It is also important that your school outlines how it will handle and resolve claims of sexual misconduct, assault, and abuse. There is a range in the level of detail provided by schools. The most important things to consider are:

  1. Differentiating the investigation process from your typical discipline process since these incidents require training for those involved and should not include students
  2. Outlining your process clearly
  3. Adhering to your process

See Learning Courage’s page on “Investigations & Responding Practices” for more information. 

  1. Historic Misconduct and Abuse

Like misconduct that happens in your school today, historic misconduct and abuse are tragic.  And yet, it’s often more complicated because the individuals likely differ in their healing, and it’s easier to leave it up to those harmed to make a report than it is to be proactive and not know what you will find. 

Unfortunately, there is a high likelihood that, whether or not it was previously reported, your school has some history that includes sexual abuse. These incidents are painful and incredibly complicated to handle well because there are so many elements involved: human/emotional, legal, institutional, and systemic. And yet, one thing is clear: addressing these incidents with integrity and empathy provides an opportunity to heal those who have been harmed while also bringing your school community closer.  

We have complete sections for both reporting and investigating misconduct and abuse, so we do not go into these details here.  The links below lead to those sections with more complete information.

  1. Crisis Response Guide

Every school needs to have a protocol for responding to reports of sexual misconduct or abuse. Part of that response includes providing emergency support for both the reporting and responding party. If the reporting party requires medical attention, the following should be identified and known to all those responsible for the student’s care:

In addition, you need to have a trained resource for emergency emotional support for all students involved. This is important because it will help minimize the additional trauma for the reporting party and will provide a source of information closest to the event. Providing a trained resource in this process also allows you to have documented memories of the experience for both the reporting and responding parties, which will be important for those involved in assessing the findings.  Lastly, this trained person will increase the likelihood that policies and procedures have been followed.  

When an individual reports an incident, you must determine if the school is obligated to report these allegations to the authorities. State laws vary, but we recommend that, if warranted, reporting should be made by the school’s designated mandated reporter, if they have one. For some schools, this person is called a “Wellness Coordinator”. Regardless of their title, all faculty and staff must know who this individual is and how to contact them. In some states, all faculty/staff are mandated reporters so it is critical that those steps are outlined for the community.

See Learning Courage’s page on “Crisis Response Guide” for more information. 

  1. Definition of Terms

Define key terms and policies: See Learning Courage’s “Definition of Terms” for complete descriptions of these terms:

  • Dating Violence
  • Sexual Assault
  • Sexual Exploitation: Include a description of technological exploitation.
  • Sexual Harassment and Hostile Environment
  • Stalking
  • Statutory Rape
  • Prohibition of Sexual Relationships Between Students and Employees
  • Consent
  • Confidentiality: Be sure to include the limitations of confidentiality, especially with respect to mandated reporting
  • Privacy: While it may not be possible to ensure complete privacy regarding reports of sexual abuse and misconduct, schools can establish practices that respect student privacy. This includes keeping investigations on a “Need to know” basis.
  • Discrimination
  • Bullying
  • Hazing
  • Incapacitation
    1. Student Handbook

    Every school has a student handbook which contains critical information about the school’s values, standards, expectations, and policies. We recommend that schools include an electronic version of their student handbook on their website. Every school should require students to read the student handbook at the beginning of each academic year and to confirm with their signature that they have read and agree to abide by the policies laid out in the handbook. 

    In addition to reading and confirming they have reviewed the handbook, we recommend that sections related to topics such as sexual misconduct and abuse be reviewed and discussed in advisory teams or some other small group. These steps establish a greater understanding of the practical application of behavior expectations than if only reading the handbook is required. 

    Schools should update their handbooks annually.

    Topics to cover in your school’s Handbook related to sexual misconduct and abuse:

    See Learning Courage’s page “Student Handbook” and “Definition of Terms” for more information. 

    1. Employee Handbook

    Like the student handbook, your school should update its employee handbook annually and should include an outline of employee conduct expectations. While some schools may not want their employee handbook linked on their website, at a minimum the school should use the website to clearly define employee conduct expectations, hiring processes, and background checks.

    Employee handbooks should also include the topics aforementioned in the Student Handbook Section. It is crucial that employee handbooks are equipped with the most recent and up-to-date reporting requirements for the state in which the school is located.

    Employee handbooks should consist of but not be limited to:

    See Learning Courage’s page “Employee Handbook” for more information. 

    1. Communication

    Communication around incidents of sexual misconduct and abuse is delicate. Most current cases can’t be discussed because of confidentiality. However, your school should be prepared ahead of time with a crisis communication plan, especially for situations where the news media are involved. Similarly, sometimes cases of current sexual misconduct, assault, and abuse become “public” around campus and you will need a communication strategy to address that possibility. 

    In the case of communication, it’s important to differentiate between internal communication and external communication.  In the context of sexual misconduct and abuse, we refer to internal communications as within the current school community.  This includes faculty, staff, students, and their parents/guardians.  External communications in the context of our work refer to information sent to alumni.  This external communication is often posted on school websites and therefore should be considered information that could be included in media coverage. Press releases and creating talking points for responding to media are also external communication.

    Incidents related to existing students should not be communicated internally or externally unless details are reported and carried in the media. 

    In the case of historic abuse, it is essential that you include someone with communications expertise to advise you through the process. Investigations typically take months and can last longer than a year.  Providing updates to your community throughout an investigation, once you receive the findings from the report and continuing as you respond to findings requires care and regular attention.

    Doing this well requires transparency in sharing details.  It’s also important to identify steps your school is taking to address the historic abuse and prevent further injury or harm to the current community.  Lastly but also critical you must communicate specific details of how your school is supporting those who were harmed. These are all essential for schools and their communities to heal. 

    See Learning Courage’s page on “Communication Guidelines” and “Historic Misconduct and Abuse” for more information. 

    1. Support for Alumni

    Schools are committed to many constituents: current students, parents/guardians, employees, alumni, and more. When schools are affected by historic misconduct and abuse, they are faced with many hard decisions that impact their community. One of those decisions is how best to support the alumni who are victims/survivors of that abuse. It is not easy to sort out these decisions as there are human, financial, legal, and institutional priorities. However, regardless of your school's stature or financial position, it is critical that your response be survivor-centered and trauma-informed. Too often fear drives these critical decisions and subsequently, your school can unintentionally do more harm to the survivors and the greater community.  Every school is different in their capacity to provide financial support for alumni survivors, but you should consider what support you want to offer to their alumni: counseling, survivor advocates, legal mediation assistance through independent investigators and arbitrators, a place for alumni to come together for healing and more. 

    See Learning Courage’s page on “Historic Misconduct and Abuse” and “Communication Guidelines” for more information. 

    Hiring and Firing

    The selection and dismissal of employees are incredibly important elements of school management that need to be handled professionally, ethically, and humanely. When hiring employees, there are many factors to consider, and these may vary according to the position being filled. However, having a well-thought-out hiring process is critical to ensuring that the overall priorities of the institution are applied, the safety and well-being of students are considered, and the implicit bias we all have is addressed. 

    Creating a thorough process doesn’t ensure that every employee will excel.  But it will reduce your risk of hiring someone who should not be hired. As an example, there have been instances (mostly in the past) where schools fire an employee who has been accused of sexual misconduct and then actually help them get a job at a different school.  This practice is called “passing the trash”. Therefore, as with the hiring process, having a plan for how to handle departing employees and their future job searches is essential. It is complicated and a bit of a balancing act, since there can be legal limitations on what you, as an institution, can and can’t do. Regardless, there is too much risk to your school if you take this process lightly. It is incumbent upon your school to have well-established policies around hiring, reference checking, and firing. These policies should be run by your legal counsel, and Learning Courage can also support you in this process so you protect the school and future students.    

    Hiring Process

    School employees usually move into, out of, and between many different institutions throughout their careers. The turnover of employees at schools occurs for a multitude of reasons. Because employees are coming to schools from a variety of places, your school has to be ready to engage in a thorough review of a prospective employee's previous experiences. The hiring process and structure at your school should be committee-based, centered around your institutional values (including implicit bias training for all committee members), and consistent among applicants e.g., using the same interview questions and on-campus (or virtual) visits, thorough reference checking, and comprehensive offers. 

    Hiring Committee:

    Best practices include having an established committee structure in place for hiring. The committee composition can vary depending on the kinds of positions but usually includes representation from leadership (i.e.: Dept. Chair, Assistant Head, etc.), member(s) from a department, DEI director, and Human Resources staff member. Ideally, committees have five or so members that also represent diversity in identity and perspective. Often committees are too large, and that can become unwieldy for scheduling and decision making. A committee chair is appointed to manage the process.

    Institutional Values:

    Before hiring season, it is important that those in charge of the hiring process review what the institutional values are that underpin all searches related to safety, professionalism, experience, diversity, equity, inclusion, and ethics. Often, in addition to other qualifications, schools are looking for a “culture fit”. It is very important to define what “culture fit” means as it is important but can be nebulous and lead to perpetuations of implicit bias. 

    Implicit Bias:

    It is critical that hiring committees receive training on implicit bias. We all carry with us bias and blind spots from many areas in our lives. To be as inclusive and thoughtful as possible, it’s essential to understand more about implicit bias and how to create practices that mitigate it. Included in this training should be information on how to read resumes, and conduct both interviews and reference checks.

    Scripts for Interviews:

    In order to be consistent in the search process, eliminate bias, and provide similar information for comparison, it is important to create scripts for phone interviews and in-person/virtual interviews. This will help you cover all of the topics deemed important, avoid unnecessary redundancy, and provide a more consistent experience for candidates. Remember they are interviewing you as you are interviewing them. You should include questions about their interactions with students and colleagues. Often using scenarios is helpful to get at attitudes, behaviors, and mindset. The questions you ask communicate the topics you think are important and therefore reinforces your focus on, along with other things, student safety, boundaries, and professionalism. 

    Candidate Visits:

    Candidate visits are choreographed so that you can get the information you need about the candidates, and the candidates can get the information they need to determine if they want to join your school. Consider with whom the candidates meet, where they will meet and go on their visit, who will take them from place to place, and what the day/visit feels like from a candidate perspective and from a school perspective. Be sure there is some way to get feedback from all those involved in the visit. You may consider using a survey to capture the same information from those with whom the candidate spends time. It is always interesting to get information from people who may have interacted more informally with the candidate as well (those at reception or taking the candidate on a tour, etc.).  

    Reference Checking:

    Reference checking must be done carefully and consistently; the same process should be used for all hires. This includes using both state and federal databases, asking the same questions of references and saving notes from this process in all personnel files. In addition, should a potential employee not list an upper-level administrator on a reference list, the hiring manager should still check in with those in leadership at previous places of employment to check in on the potential employee’s reputation and conduct. Similarly, you should determine what you will do if people at your school know others who have interacted with the candidate. Will you reach out to those people? Who will do that? What role does their feedback play in the decision-making process?

    One way to engage in transparent background checks is through the use of a third-party company or organization that does not have direct ties to your school. Each state has its own unique laws regarding the background check process with which your school needs to comply.


    Your hiring process should outline who makes the offers to candidates and what negotiating power those people have. Some schools have only Human Resources or the Head of School make offers. Others allow department heads to make offers. It is important to sort this out institutionally in order to ensure equity and consistency. Avoid making “deals” in the hiring process because they can lead to challenges down the road. Also, it is important to determine who and how you will contact those who don’t get the position and what you will say. Knowing the legal and ethical parameters regarding what you can and can’t say to candidates will help you make good decisions. 


    There is much that is important in the onboarding process for employees as it relates to sexual misconduct and abuse, and we cover a lot of it in the “Employee Handbook” section of the website. 


    Employee dismissals are challenging at schools no matter what the cause. Most schools have supervision and evaluation processes that outline expectations for employees and what happens if they don’t meet those expectations. Your employee handbook should outline what happens if someone is dismissed/fired from your school. This dismissal plan needs to be structured for many reasons, but one main reason is for your school to be prepared for the aftermath of dismissing an employee regarding sexual misconduct and abuse. Consider if your school will give letters of reference to dismissed employees for any reason, and what your school’s obligation is as the last place of employment for the dismissed employee.  It is always wise for schools to consult legal counsel regarding what you can say regarding a dismissal. It is very important, however, if someone has been dismissed for sexual misconduct or abuse that you don’t write letters of recommendation supporting that candidate to another school. Additionally, our recommendation is that if the dismissed employee requests a reference from your school, they must also give you permission to disclose why they were dismissed.

    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 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.”


    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.


    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. 


    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.

    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.

    Climate Surveys

    At Learning Courage, we believe that it is important for your school to be proactive about understanding the climate of your school as it relates to sexual behavior. The best way to do this is to conduct a climate survey. There are different types of climate surveys available to understand various aspects of your school. We believe that a climate survey focused on the topic of sexual attitudes and behaviors is an essential tool for collecting both quantitative and qualitative data about what is really happening within the community at your school.  Another critical data point relates to the culture of the school since the attitudes and behaviors of students are closely tied to the culture.

    With this data, you can identify any gaps or challenges your school may need to tackle. These surveys can also provide information about how your policies and procedures are being followed -and if there are any gaps between your protocols and what is actually occurring at your school. Conducting surveys periodically also allows your school to assess information about the climate over time and measure your progress towards your objectives. 

    Learning Courage is currently in the process of vetting several of the existing survey tools used in schools today. While there are several survey tools currently available, we believe that the tools either need to include more questions about sexual attitudes and behaviors or to be focused exclusively on questions related to this topic.     

    How students think and talk about gender identity and gender expression and also sexual orientation and expression continues to evolve  These issues relate directly to attitudes and behaviors.  The more you know about how your students are thinking about these social expressions, the better able you are support the needs of your students while also understand if members of the community may be at risk, whether due to their gender, sex, race, class, religion, or other identities.  

    Developing and delivering a survey tool is on our list of priorities for this year. Our tool will be specific to sexual attitudes and behaviors and has different modules for different age groups to ensure the surveys are age-appropriate.

    Title IX Information

    Since 1972, Title IX has served as an important piece of legislation that guides how educational institutions respond to and seek to prevent discrimination “on the basis of sex,” including sexual misconduct and abuse (see note below). The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which enforces Title IX, releases updated guidelines and policies that are used to review and enforce Title IX complaints and regulations with which schools must comply. The most recent regulations fall under the Final Rule, which the Department of Education (ED) announced in May 2020 and released in August 2020. 

    Although Title IX only applies legally to institutions receiving federal funding, the guidelines and regulations set forth by the Department of Education can serve as useful guides for any school seeking to develop effective and just practices when handling instances of sexual misconduct and abuse. This document summarizes relevant guidelines and regulations provided by ED under Title IX and also includes recommendations from Learning Courage. At the bottom of each section, we have included “Our Observations and Recommendations” on the various guidelines and how they might best apply to your school regardless of whether you receive federal funding. 

    Note: There are instances in this document when we refer to discrimination “on the basis of sex,” which is language taken directly from the Title IX statute. We recognize that this is outdated language meant to refer to gender-based discrimination and sexual violence. Because the legislation continues to use this language, we have included it here, but in quotation marks. We believe that using “gender-based” as a replacement for “on the basis of sex” is more current and inclusive terminology, so we recommend using that and use that in our work.

    Summary of our Observations and Recommendations

    We at Learning Courage believe that it is important for all K-12 schools to be familiar with Title IX regulations. While schools that receive federal funding must abide by all Title IX regulations, we also believe that schools that do not receive federal funding can use the regulations to, in part, guide approaches to resolving and reducing sexual misconduct and abuse. In addition to consulting Title IX, it’s also important that your school consult and abide by all other federal and state requirements. We have compiled the following list of our observations and recommendations about Title IX for schools that do not receive federal funding. 

    Coordinator: Your school should appoint a coordinator, often called a “Wellness Coordinator,” wherever possible. The Wellness Coordinator’s role is similar to that of the Title IX Coordinator in schools that receive funding (duties can include receiving reports of sexual misconduct and abuse, coordinating the investigation and disciplinary processes, reporting incidents to DCF and law enforcement, etc.)

    Rationale: It is important and beneficial to create an obvious point of contact for everyone in the community to go to for information and reporting incidents. It also sends a strong statement to the community that your school prioritizes student health and safety. This person can also assist in evaluating policies, procedures, programming, curriculum, and training related to this topic.

    Definitions: Your school should provide definitions of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and other prohibited conduct and communicate those definitions clearly and in a variety of ways to the community throughout the year.

    Rationale: This reinforces your school’s commitment to student safety and clarity of communication. It accommodates different learning styles by communicating in a variety of ways and provides a consistent and clear message throughout the school year by communicating definitions frequently and agreeing on what they mean.

    Terms: Your school should use the terms “responding party” and “reporting party,” respectively, instead of “respondent” and “complainant.”

    Rationale: It is better to use more neutral and less legal language. (See the section on “Other Important Terms Used in Title IX Documents” for a more in-depth explanation of this language.)

    Laws: Your school should check and comply with all state and federal laws concerning mandatory reporting, consent, etc. and inform the community about who the mandatory reporters are, what ages of consent are, and more.

    Rationale: Clear guidelines help protect your students’ safety and ensure compliance with legal requirements.

    Notice of nondiscrimination: Your school should write and disseminate a notice of nondiscrimination, which expressly states that the school does not tolerate gender-based discrimination or sexual violence. This notice should be part of your student handbook and policies and procedures at a minimum.  It doesn’t need to be a separate statement from the general statement you have, but take care to update this regularly to ensure it is inclusive to any changes that have occurred in the types of discrimination that can impact physical and emotional safety.

    Rationale: This underscores your school’s commitment to protecting all members of the community and provides legal protection.

    Grievance Procedure: Your school should write a clear and thorough grievance procedure to establish standards for the allegation, investigation, and disciplinary processes. You should prominently display this procedure in your student handbook and on websites and follow it closely.

    Rationale: This provides clarity and awareness for everyone in the community about the process and helps your school follow clearly outlined steps when you are in the midst of a complex and demanding situation.

    Prompt, Survivor-Centric Response: Your school should respond to any allegations of sexual misconduct or abuse in a prompt and respectful way and should consider the wishes of the reporting party with regard to how the school responds and investigates the allegations, while also following legal and moral requirements. We also believe your approach should be survivor-centric and trauma-informed.

    Rationale: This helps avoid deepening the harm that a reporting party may experience, which can happen by reporting something that they do not want reported. You must also take legal requirements into account and consult your legal counsel to obtain advice concerning any particular legal matter.

    Advocates for Reporting and Responding Parties: Ensure that reporting and responding parties have a trained advisor or advocate to help guide them through the process and offer support.

    Rationale: It is important for both the reporting and responding parties to have support and guidance as they navigate the challenging process of investigations. While historically, it is more common to support the reporting party (which is essential), we believe that responding parties need support as well.

    Student Involvement in Disciplinary Committee: Students should be excluded from serving on disciplinary committees when dealing with hearings for sexual misconduct or abuse.

    Rationale: Cases like this require training, sensitivity, and high degrees of confidentiality. Not having students on these disciplinary hearings, helps preserve both confidentiality and professionalism. 

    Training for Discipline Committee: Members of the discipline committee who conduct hearings should be trained on sexual trauma and its potential impacts on memory and behavior, among other things.

    Rationale: Understanding how trauma impacts the brain is important so as to avoid misinterpreting survivor behavior, including changes in memory, recollections, and timeline. It will also help promote a survivor-centric, trauma-informed response, ideally reducing unintended harm to those involved.

    Preponderance of Evidence Standard: Your school should use the “preponderance of evidence standard” over the “clear and convincing standard” of evidence. The “preponderance of evidence standard” is easier to meet and is less rigorous than the “clear and convincing standard.”

    Rationale: Doing this increases the likelihood that reporting parties will be taken seriously and will therefore lead to more integrity in the reporting process. It can also serve to reduce barriers to having a more accurate finding for the reporting party.

    Appeals Process: Your school should articulate an appeal process if you have one. When determining your appeals processes, you might want to consider the differences between current and historic abuse.  You should also be clear about the reasons you may consider an appeal such as new or previously undisclosed evidence.  Appeals should not be allowed simply because someone didn’t agree with the outcome. 

    Rationale: Providing clarity to the community regarding the appeals process and potential differences based on whether abuse is current or historic is important to avoid confusion and build community.

    Restorative Justice: Your school should offer and facilitate an informal resolution process, such as restorative justice, if both parties give explicit and informed consent. Informal resolution should not occur in instances when an employee has sexually abused a student. The adult who leads the informal resolution process must be trained and qualified.  Note that using a restorative justice approach does not replace the normal investigation and discipline committee process.

    Rationale: This step can promote resolution and healing while supporting survivors.

    Retaliation: You should expressly prohibit retaliation of any kind in circumstances of reporting sexual misconduct or abuse.  This should be specifically identified in the Student and Employee Handbooks.

    Rationale: It is essential to prohibit retaliation, which is something we believe should be standard in student and employee handbooks to create a safe community.

    What is Title IX?

    Title IX is a federal civil rights law passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972.  All schools receiving any form of federal aid must comply with Title IX regulations. This comprehensive federal law prohibits gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment and abuse. Title IX states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” [Title Ix Of The Education Amendments Of 1972 | CRT] Under Title IX, survivors of sexual violence can legally hold their schools accountable for keeping them safe. For many years, the application of Title IX was more focused on gender-based discrimination, successfully arguing for more balanced funding for female sports teams.  In more recent years, the law has been applied to rules that secure student safety from sexual harassment and abuse.

    Recent Changes to Title IX 

    On May 6, 2020, the Department of Education published the long-awaited Final Rule implementing new Title IX regulations. All schools subject to Title IX compliance are required to adapt to these changes in the Final Rule by August 14, 2020. Since the Final Rule was published, many critics have spoken out against the new regulations. Attorneys General from 18 states have sued the Department of Education in an attempt to block the Final Rule from becoming effective and the ACLU has a pending lawsuit challenging the regulations. You can read more about the Final Rule on the Department of Education’s website here

    Implications of the Recent Changes to Title IX

    We at Learning Courage also recognize various faults and limitations of the Final Rule. While we believe that many Title IX regulations may be useful and effective when implemented, we believe that some of the new regulations of the Final Rule will have real implications for survivors in K-12 schools. While we don’t yet know how exactly all of these changes will affect survivors and school in practice, as a survivor-focused organization we do not agree with any policy that has the potential to discourage survivors from reporting or is not supportive of survivors. For example, one of the new Final Rule policies requires schools to give the reporting and responding parties the opportunity to ask questions of any party or witness and to provide each party with answers. We believe that this requirement (essentially allowing parties to interrogate each other) could negatively affect survivors’ willingness to report, which is detrimental to survivors and therefore should be not considered a best practice.  Due process is critical, but it needs to be done in ways that don’t suppress reporting from those who have been victimized.   

    Who enforces Title IX? 

    The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education enforces Title IX. OCR has the authority to develop policy on the regulations it enforces. While Title IX is a very short statute, Supreme Court decisions and guidance from OCR have given it a broad scope covering sexual harassment and sexual violence. Schools receiving federal funding must look to guidance materials from the U.S. Department of Education, which outlines policies on the regulations that it enforces under Title IX. [Title IX - Know Your Rights

    Who does Title IX apply to?

    Title IX covers all the educational programs or activities offered by an institution receiving federal funding.  The intent of Title IX is good and appropriate, and we believe all schools should meet or exceed those requirements.  In many cases, this does not apply to independent schools. However, you should check to make sure your school is not subject to Title IX because there are some tracking and reporting requirements that may not be part of your current practices. For example, if your school has received federal funds through the Payroll Protection Program (“PPP”) or as an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (“EIDL”), it may trigger compliance requirements. [FFA and the SBA: Implications for Independent Schools Accepting Federal Financial Assistance | Thought Leadership]

    What is a Title IX Coordinator?

    Under Title IX regulations every educational institution receiving federal funding must designate at least one employee to serve as its Title IX coordinator. The Title IX Coordinator ensures schools are compliant with the regulations, coordinates the investigation and disciplinary process, and looks for patterns or systematic problems with compliance to ensure schools fulfill all their federal obligations. [Title IX - Know Your Rights]  A school needs to ensure its educational community knows how to report to the Title IX Coordinator. This includes notifying students, employees, applicants for admission and employment, parents or legal guardians, and all unions of the name, office address, email address, and telephone number of the Title IX Coordinator. This contact information should also be prominently displayed on schools’ websites. Any person can report sexual misconduct or abuse to the Coordinator at any time. 

    Our Observations and Recommendations

    If your school does not receive federal funding, it is still useful to appoint a coordinator whose explicit role is to receive and handle reports of sexual misconduct and abuse and to coordinate the investigation and disciplinary processes that follow. It should also be this person’s job to look for individual patterns or systemic problems of abuse in the school in order to ensure the safety of all students and reduce instances of abuse. Many independent institutions call this role the “Wellness Coordinator” as opposed to the “Title IX Coordinator.” We at Learning Courage recommend that all schools clearly state on their websites that students can report abuse to the person serving in this role and include this coordinator’s contact information.

    How does Title IX apply to instances of sexual misconduct and abuse?

    The following is a summary of information on guidelines and regulations provided by the Department of Education under Title IX.

    Definition of Sexual Harassment Under Title IX

    The Final Rule of Title IX defines sexual harassment broadly to include these three types of misconduct “on the basis of sex”:

    Our Observations and Recommendations

    If your school does not receive federal funding, it is still important for administrators, faculty, and students to understand what constitutes sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse. The definitions provided under Title IX may serve as useful guides for your school to develop your own definitions, which should then be communicated clearly to the community. We believe that, in addition to providing definitions for sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and other prohibited conduct, schools should also provide definitions for and educate/train students about “consent” and other relevant topics. (See Learning Courage’s page on “Definition of Terms” for more information.)

    Other Important Terms Used in Title IX Documents

    Our Observations and Recommendations

    We at Learning Courage recognize faults in some of the language above that is used in Title IX documents. Specifically, we believe that the term “complainant” wrongly carries a pejorative tone. No victim of sexual misconduct or abuse should ever be blamed or looked down upon for coming forward. Furthermore, no victim who chooses to report abuse is ever “complaining,” but rather taking a brave step to speak up against the perpetrator. So, we recommend using the term “reporting party” instead of “complainant.” Likewise, we recommend using the term “responding party” instead of “respondent.” For these reasons, in the following sections, we place quotation marks around “complainant” and “respondent.” We believe that “formal complaint” and “supportive measures” are appropriate terms, which many schools already use. 

    When a School Must Act & Mandated Reporting

    Under the Final Rule of Title IX, K-12 schools receiving funding must respond whenever any employee has notice of sexual harassment, including allegations of sexual harassment. In other words, all school employees must now be considered “mandatory reporters.” Many State laws also require all K-12 employees to be mandatory reporters of child abuse. For schools receiving federal funding, notice to a Title IX Coordinator, or to an official with authority to institute corrective measures on the recipient's behalf, charges a school with actual knowledge and triggers the school's response obligations.

    Our Observations and Recommendations

    For institutions that receive federal funding, all employees must be mandatory reporters, and schools that do not receive funding should check state laws regarding mandated reporting and ensure that members of the community are aware of mandated reporting laws and adhere to them.  At a minimum, we recommend that every school have a dedicated mandatory reporter, regardless of whether all adults are legally considered mandatory reporters.  This ensures that there is at least one person at your school whose job it is to report incidents.  

    Notice of Nondiscrimination

    Under Title IX, schools must disseminate a notice of nondiscrimination. The U.S. Department of Education recommends that schools: (1) Publish this policy online and have it available in print across campus so that school members may understand its purpose and utility and (2) Include enough detail in the policy so that members of the community can realize sexual harassment and sexual violence are prohibited forms of discrimination.

    Our Observations and Recommendations

    We recommend that all schools, including those that do not receive federal funding, write and publish explicit and detailed policies against gender-based discrimination, including sexual misconduct and abuse. These policies should be both easy to access and displayed on schools’ websites and in student and employee handbooks.

    Grievance Procedure

    Under Title IX, schools are required to adopt and publish a grievance procedure outlining the complaint, investigation, and disciplinary processes used for resolving formal complaints of sexual misconduct and abuse. According to guidance by ED, the grievance procedure should be consistent and transparent. The following is a summary of other requirements prescribed by ED for grievance procedures. Grievance procedures must:

    Our Observations and Recommendations

    We recommend that your school adopt a grievance procedure in order to establish standards for the allegation, investigation, and disciplinary processes. To summarize, a grievance procedure should require an objective, unbiased, and fair approach to investigating allegations and resolving formal complaints of misconduct and abuse. The procedure should be outlined clearly and thoroughly, and it must be followed consistently. An examination of ED’s requirements may provide a solid starting point for crafting a grievance procedure.

    Schools’ Mandatory Response Obligations

    The Final Rule provides several response obligations that schools must fulfill. The following is a summary of those obligations. 

    Our Observations and Recommendations

    We believe that all schools, regardless of Title IX status, should respond to any allegations of sexual misconduct or abuse in a prompt and respectful way. This includes communicating openly and understandingly with both the reporting and responding parties and ensuring that they are aware of their options relating to investigations and available support. The wishes of the reporting party/victim should be taken into consideration to the extent that the law allows.


    The Final Rule states that, to comply with Title IX, schools receiving federal support must investigate the allegations in any formal “complaint” and send written notice to both parties (“complainants” and “respondents”) of the allegations. For these schools, the following statements are true during the grievance process and when investigating:

    Our Observations and Recommendations

    Investigations can differ between current and historic incidents and we recognize the importance of having a strong process in place for both.  We suggest that the reporting and responding parties involved have a trained support person to help navigate the emotionally-challenging process throughout the investigation. Although schools that do not receive federal funding are not required to follow the above regulations regarding investigations, we at Learning Courage believe that they are nevertheless important to consider. (See Learning Courage’s pages on “Investigations and Responding Practices” and “Historic Misconduct and Abuse” for more information.)


    Under Title IX, recipients of federal funding that are K-12 schools may, but need not, have a hearing as part of their grievance process.

    Our Observations and Recommendations

    We would like to emphasize that, when conducting hearings, your school should prioritize the privacy of both parties involved. While some independent schools have a discipline committee that handles hearings for allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse, students should not serve on this committee when it is handling hearings specifically pertaining to sexual misconduct, in order to ensure privacy and professionalism. It is also important that the adults serving on your committee receive training in sexual trauma. Specifically, committee members should understand the impacts that sexual trauma has on survivors and how that trauma can potentially alter or impair survivors’ memories of the sexual abuse that occurred, through no fault of their own. We also recommend that both reporting and responding parties should have the opportunity to submit a written statement of the events, along with any supporting evidence they feel is important in determining the result and response to the investigation.

    Standard of Evidence and Written Determination

    The Final Rule requires the school’s grievance process to state the standard of evidence that is used to determine responsibility.  This standard of evidence must be applied consistently for all formal “complaints” of sexual harassment whether the respondent is a student or an employee (including a faculty member). The Rule also specifies requirements for written determinations.

    Our Observations and Recommendations

    We, at Learning Courage, believe that any process that discourages reporting or revictimizes a reporting party must be carefully reconsidered.  Furthermore, we believe that applying the preponderance of evidence standard is more appropriate than the clear and convincing standard because there is often conflicting information and a lack of hard evidence in most of these cases. Applying a more rigorous standard will result in fewer findings, which will also discourage reporting. The more rigorous standard will also serve to reinforce the cultural norms around power dynamics and potentially create more unintended harm for those involved.  Reporting parties must feel like their case has a good chance of being decided on its merits rather than decided because the certainty of guilt is lacking.  As you consider which standard to apply, you should consult your attorney to understand the implications.  


    The Final Rule states that a school receiving funding must offer both parties the chance to appeal a determination regarding responsibility or a school’s dismissal of a formal complaint or allegations on the following bases: procedural irregularity that affected the outcome of the matter, newly discovered evidence that could affect the outcome of the matter, and/or Title IX personnel had a conflict of interest or bias, that affected the outcome of the matter.

    Our Observations and Recommendations

    We recommend that your school, regardless of receiving federal aid, articulate if you have an appeal process and state what it is. Many schools have appeals processes that differ depending on if the sexual misconduct or abuse is current or historic, which is an important distinction to consider. (See Learning Courage’s page on “Historic Misconduct and Abuse” for more information.)

    Informal Resolution

    The Final Rule allows a school, in its discretion, to offer and facilitate informal resolution options, such as mediation or restorative justice if both parties give voluntary, informed, written consent to attempt informal resolution. (See Learning Courage’s page on “Restorative Justice” for more information.) Any person who facilitates an informal resolution must be well trained. The Final Rule adds:

    Our Observations and Recommendations

    At Learning Courage, we believe that restorative justice can be an effective strategy for informal resolution. We also agree with Title IX recommendations that informal resolution between parties should only take place if both parties give informed and voluntary consent and that informal resolution processes should not occur in instances when an employee has sexually abused a student. It is crucial that the adults leading the restorative justice process are trained professionals.  Additionally, informal resolution options must not be used as an alternative to the existing investigation process but rather in addition to it.

    Retaliation Prohibited

    Under Title IX, retaliation (an act meant to punish a person for making a report of sexual misconduct or discrimination) is prohibited. The Final Rule specifies the following:

    Our Observations and Recommendations

    It is essential to respect the confidentiality of the responding and reporting parties that are involved. We also agree with Title IX regulations that retaliation in circumstances of reporting sexual misconduct or abuse is unacceptable and should be expressly prohibited, with appropriate disciplinary action taken if discovered.

    We urge you to review the information in Title IX as it relates to the safety of students and survivors. If not mandated to follow the regulations, please consider using them as guidelines as you review and update your policies and procedures. Please consult your legal counsel, as appropriate, for additional guidance.

    Employee Handbook

    Employees make up the foundation of your school. They have roles that are important and valuable to promoting the climate, environment, and experiences that can positively change student’s lives. Your expectations for all employees should be clearly articulated in your school’s employee handbook. 

    The employee handbook conveys your school’s unique culture and expectations for all employees. It is also a critical tool for reinforcing your school’s mission, statement of purpose for employees, and overall commitment to student well-being and safety. This must include setting very clear expectations about establishing and maintaining safe and appropriate boundaries with students in all interactions, including on-campus, off-campus, and in all communications. Similar to our recommendations for the student handbook, all employees must affirm that they have read and will uphold the requirements outlined in the handbook.  Employees should discuss handbook guidelines related to sexual misconduct and understand the resources and their responsibilities around keeping students safe. These actions are crucial to reducing sexual misconduct and abuse at your school and helping to build a culture of healthy relationships.

    Be as specific as possible in your explanation of terms and expectations. While your school may not want its employee handbook linked on the website, at a minimum your school should use the website to clearly define employee conduct expectations and hiring processes.  Consider reinforcing these details in student or employee-led discussions to reinforce these important rules and resources. Providing examples in your handbook of behaviors that support healthy relationships will set expectations of appropriate conduct. Understanding the role you want the employee handbook to play in your school community will help guide your decisions about what you want to include.  

    Employee handbooks should consist of but not be limited to: 

    Acknowledge and Understanding of Material

    To abide by it, employees must read and understand the content in the handbook. In order to ensure employees have done this, your school can require that every year employees acknowledge in writing they have read and will adhere to the details outlined in the handbook. However, just signing their names indicating they have read the handbook is not enough. Employees should also be given the opportunity to reflect on and ask questions regarding any policy and procedure that applies to them. Learning Courage encourages these opportunities for discussion to occur more than once throughout the school year in order to ensure proper learning and growth. Workshops or advisory circles are another venue where students and employees can discuss the handbook before signing their acknowledgment of the content. All of these actions will help employees understand what they are agreeing to and shift school culture in real and meaningful ways. See more information regarding employees affirming their knowledge in the handbook in the “Prevention and Training” section. 


    Employees are expected to maintain healthy boundaries with their students. Outlining the boundaries and expectations for how to maintain them should be addressed in the employee handbook and in training sessions. There is a lot of nuance to scenarios that occur on school campuses that can make things feel confusing to employees, therefore it is essential for employees to discuss healthy boundaries and various scenarios to help solidify understanding of boundaries and what constitutes an unhealthy or inappropriate boundary. For more information on boundaries see the “Signs and Symptoms” and “Prevention and Training” sections. 

    Electronic Communications with Students

    It is well documented that the rise of social media, cell phone use, and remote learning presents very complicated areas of communication between adults and students at school. Social media and technology can be particularly challenging because apps and behaviors around them change rapidly, making it difficult to keep up.  Creating policies and procedures regarding your school’s expectations for employees’ engagement in electronic communication with students is crucial to creating a transparent and safe campus. Updating these policies each year will help you keep up with appropriate policy changes. In the end, you will need to make policy decisions based on your school culture and the direction you want to lead your school. This has become much more important with the Covid-19 pandemic in ‘20-’21. For information regarding Online Sexual Misconduct and Abuse as well as Best Practices for Remote Learning see the “Signs and Symptoms” section. 

    Employee Assistance

    Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) can and will cover more than just services related to sexual misconduct and abuse. Their services can range from financial advice to counseling. It is critical though, that these programs have services related to sexual misconduct and abuse for your employees. Your school should check to be sure that your employee assistance program, which is offered through your insurance company, includes support for employees involved in sexual misconduct and abuse incidents. In addition, it is important for employees to be informed of what services are available to them through the school’s employee assistance program. For more information on supportive services see the “Supportive Services” section.

    Hiring Process

    School employees usually move into, out of, and between many different institutions throughout their careers. The turnover of employees at schools occurs for a multitude of reasons. Because employees are coming to schools from a variety of places, your school should be ready to engage in a thorough review of a prospective employee's previous experiences. The hiring process and structure at your school should be centered around checking each and every prospective employee with rigor, documentation, and honesty. One way to engage in transparent background checks is through the use of a third-party company or organization that does not have direct ties to your school. Each state has its own unique laws regarding the background check process which your school needs to comply with. On top of your legal requirements, there are ethical components to who you hire. 

    Reference checking must be done carefully and the same process should be used for all hires. This includes using both state and federal databases, asking the same questions of references, and saving notes from this process in all personnel files. In addition, should a potential employee not list an upper-level administrator on a reference list, the hiring manager should still check in with those in leadership at previous places of employment to check in on the potential employee’s reputation and conduct. See more information in the “Hiring and Firing” section. 


    Employee dismissals are challenging at schools no matter what the cause. Your school should create a plan for how you will proceed after an employee is dismissed. This plan should be structured for many reasons, but one main reason is for your school to be prepared for the aftermath of dismissing an employee regarding sexual misconduct and abuse. Consider if your school will give letters of reference to dismissed employees for any reason, and what your school’s obligation is as the last place of employment for the dismissed employee. Our recommendation is that if the dismissed employee requests a reference, they must also give you permission to disclose why they were dismissed. 

    On and Off Duty Behavior 

    The expectation that an employee is committed to student and community safety is not limited to their time in the classroom. An employee is expected to be a good steward of the school even if they are off school grounds. Transparent expectations will guide your employees to better serve their students as well as to better the institution as a whole. Some examples of policies and procedures that can be expanded on in this part of the handbook include but are not limited to: 

    Policy on Sexual Harassment

    Harassment policies have been integrated into many employee handbooks and continue to evolve with new laws and legislation. Including a sexual harassment policy in your handbook might be required by law depending on where your school is located.  Regardless of whether it is required by law, including a sexual harassment policy will promote a healthy and safe environment for employees to do their best work. Employees who experience sexual harassment should be given clear guidelines on how and to whom to report. For more information regarding employee reporting options, see Learning Courage’s “Reporting Requirements” page. Your school can consider what types of services it will provide such as whistleblower and anti-retaliation policies and services. The rights of employees, in general, should be clearly stated in the handbook regarding all aspects of policy. 

    Policy on Sexual Misconduct and Abuse

    Sexual misconduct and abuse differ from sexual harassment. The two are related, but sexual misconduct and abuse should have a separate policy from sexual harassment in the handbook. By separating these topics, your school will be able to show its commitment to the wide array of sexual violence that can occur, how they manifest, and how they are handled. Like a policy on harassment, policies on misconduct and abuse should include clear guidance on who and how to report. It is crucial that the rights of reporting and responding parties be transparent and accessible in order to show your unwavering commitment to survivors of misconduct and abuse as well as signaling your school’s commitment to creating a safe learning environment and healthy school culture. 

    Prevention and Training

    Training employees on how to combat sexual misconduct and abuse is key in having employees actively engage in the task of identifying and reducing misconduct and abuse at your school. The handbook should include a statement of your school’s commitment to training employees.  Training should vary from year to year to cover different topics and provide multiple opportunities to learn and discuss these topics. For more information see the “Prevention and Training” section.  

    Reporting Requirements

    Reporting requirements for employees at schools vary by state. Your school should be educated on and practice the most up-to-date laws on reporting where your school is located. The responsibilities of employees regarding reporting requirements and expectations should be outlined in your school’s employee handbook. There are many different companies that run anonymous reporting and whistleblower services. These services can be utilized by both employees and students who might face or be aware of sexual harassment, misconduct, or abuse at the school. For more information see the “Reporting Requirements” section. 

    Supervision and Evaluation

    Supervising and evaluating the development of the employees at your school will help your school reinforce your commitment to establishing and maintaining a safe environment for everyone within the school community while promoting professional growth and learning. The process of supervising and evaluating your employees must be well documented. Your school should pay particular attention to documenting evaluations and must include details of any conduct concerns and corrective actions by the school (i.e., placing an employee on leave, dismissing an employee, etc.) Documenting these details and having employees sign these evaluations is an important way to address concerning behavior and minimize the risk of employee retaliation. 


    Employee handbooks are made for employees, but other audiences might be interested in the content they provide. Consider whether your employee handbook - or key portions of it - will be made available to the public or even posted on your website. You must be honest and authentic in your reasoning for either decision as it relates to your school’s culture. Regardless of the decision your school makes, the level of detail you include in your policies and the ease of access to all sends a message to employees and the broader community about your commitment to community safety. 

    Transparency makes a statement and reinforces that you have clear expectations, guidelines, and consequences for attitudes and behavior at your school and you intend to hold all employees accountable for upholding those standards.  Making this information available to the public also can be a great way to signal your commitment to student safety to prospective students and their families. 

    Your school should be aware that the aforementioned topics are not exhaustive. There will be other aspects of employee life that are not mentioned here that should be covered in the handbook, especially topics outside of the scope of sexual misconduct and abuse. It is essential that you adapt your handbook to the culture and experiences of your specific institution and that you revise the handbook annually.

    Commitment to Student Safety and Well-being

    Your school’s students, community members, and prospective families pay attention to the ways that your school supports its students and keeps them safe, which is why it is important that your school makes a concerted effort to demonstrate its commitment to student safety and well-being. Showing your commitment not only highlights your values for students and their families but also establishes a core value of caring for students. While the concrete action that your school takes is the most important indicator of its values and dedication to supporting students, it is also critical to communicate the steps that your school is taking. Your school can show its commitment by publishing a Statement of Commitment to Student Safety and Well-being, communicating expectations and consequences with students openly and through various platforms, and providing resources, services, and training. The following page further details the ways that your school can demonstrate its commitment to student safety and well-being by actively supporting and educating students.

    Statement of Commitment

    We recommend that your school write a Statement of Commitment to Student Safety and Well-being and publish it on your website and in your Student and Employee Handbooks. This statement can serve to inform community members and prospective families about your school’s dedication to supporting students and keeping them safe. Rather than making broad declarations, we recommend that your statement include detailed information about the types of resources available and systems in place at your school to promote student safety and well-being. While the information provided in this statement is important, it is even more crucial that your school take proper action to back the statement up. Your school should actively demonstrate its values through its behavior. There should be clear consistency between what your school includes in its Statement of Commitment and the action that your school takes, both on a daily basis and when specific incidents of sexual misconduct and abuse arise. 

    Open Communication

    Clear communication and transparency (whenever possible) are important elements to demonstrating your school’s commitment to student safety and well-being. Your school’s website is an important platform for communicating with the school community and prospective families. We recommend that your school post on its website its Statement of Commitment and any other resources, updates, and steps you are taking to support students and prevent sexual misconduct and abuse. Doing so is just another way for your school to show its commitment to its students and other community members, which can then be enhanced through action. The Student Handbook is another platform that we recommend using to communicate this information to students. Likewise, the Employee Handbook should include this information, as employees are largely responsible for keeping students safe.

    Resources and Supportive Services

    Providing educational information and other resources and services is yet another way for your school to demonstrate and act on its commitment to student safety and well-being. There are a variety of resources and services that we recommend your school offer to students, from counseling and medical services to reporting resources to online educational resources, and more. For more in-depth recommendations on the types of resources and services to provide, see Learning Courage’s pages on “Supportive Services” and “Student Handbook.” Again, information regarding the types of resources and services available to students and the ways they can access them should be clearly outlined on your school’s website and in the Student Handbook. Employees should also be able to access this information in the Employee Handbook so that they can help direct students to resources and services.

    Training and Prevention Efforts

    Education and training play a tremendous role in efforts to reduce sexual misconduct and abuse. By creating a comprehensive training program that includes frequent workshops and training sessions on a range of updated content, your school can demonstrate its commitment to student safety and well-being in a proactive way. For more information on this topic, see Learning Courage’s page on “Prevention and Training.”

    Whole Student

    Your commitment should be to the whole student: their physical and mental well-being as well as their education. When students feel safe in their environment, their success in school is greatly increased. Your school should demonstrate that it is creating an environment where students are accepted, engaged, and supported.

    COVID-19 Related Implications in Education

    The internet and online tools have expanded opportunities for learning by enabling the creation of more models of learning and reducing previously limiting geographic and other significant barriers to learning.  Online learning also brings students and teachers out of the classroom and into more private spaces, potentially blurring boundaries that conventional classroom settings establish.  While the hope is that the changes schools have had to make because of the Covid-19 pandemic will not extend beyond this academic year, it’s essential to consider how these current adaptations create an increased risk for students and educators. It is likely that schools will adopt new technology going forward to offer online platforms for learning in some capacity. Therefore, we anticipate that these findings will remain relevant beyond the pandemic.

    Sexual misconduct and abuse can occur in any place and at any time, which includes online spaces. This can make it difficult to identify because misconduct and abuse are often done in private spaces and may be done using phones and computers. This document is designed to help you understand where those risks are so you can address them. 

    What is Online Sexual Misconduct and Abuse?

    Perhaps the most obvious thing to consider is the fact that much more teaching and learning is being done online.  Classes are online.  Meetings are online. Students are meeting together to work on projects online, and these interactions are conducted throughout the day and night.  So increased online misconduct is an ongoing and significant concern for schools to consider. 

    “Online sexual exploitation and abuse is when one person manipulates another person to get them to do something sexual — it’s an ongoing cycle of emotional and psychological abuse. This can include things such as forcing or blackmailing someone into to sending sexual photos/videos of themselves online or to perform sexual acts over webcam.” [READ What is online sexual exploitation and abuse?] Not only does this have the potential to create emotional and psychological abuse for the victim, but the online transfer of sexually explicit photos of minors is considered child pornography and can lead to serious legal consequences as well. Online sexual misconduct is not limited to adult-student contact; it also includes adult to adult and student to student online interactions. Most schools have acceptable use policies that articulate their rules regarding online behavior, sexting, and more. 

    Online Sexual Misconduct and Abuse includes but is not limited to: 

    When sexual misconduct and abuse occur online it presents with some unique signs and symptoms compared to the signs and symptoms of sexual misconduct that occur offline. In order to spot online sexual misconduct, communities should be looking out for different behaviors in online usage as well as changing trends in technological privacy from students. These include but are not limited to spending increased time online, attempting to hide their online usage from peers, becoming agitated when they lose control of their technology, becoming possessive of their technology, not being able to communicate what they are doing online to others, vague explanations of new friends they have made and more. 

    Signs of online misconduct include but are not limited to: [Warning Signs a Young Person May Be a Target of Online Sexual Abuse]

    How to Reduce Risk 

    It is therefore important for schools, parents, and students to work together to make sure everyone understands what is appropriate and what is not, signs to look for, and how to address it if there are concerns.  Students, in particular, need to understand the implications and long-term consequences and what to do if they believe an issue should be reported because it is often the students who will see changes in their peers’ behaviors.   

    Protecting Students

    Protecting students includes providing structure around expectations for behavior. Identify all applicable rules, then educate students and parents so they understand their roles and what is expected. In addition to providing policies and rules in writing, consider hosting an orientation to online learning. That way all students and their families are on the same page.

    Some techniques to maintain a safe remote learning environment [Guidance for Title IX Administrators During COVID-19]

    The Covid-19 pandemic has created an environment where children may be forced into closer contact when there is abuse happening at home. For many, school is a place of safety where they can escape their abuser. The pandemic affected the availability of health services and increased isolation. Therefore, it is critical that your employees are trained in recognizing signs and symptoms of sexual misconduct and abuse. Notify and remind employees and, especially mandated reporters, of their obligation for student safety. For more information, please see Learning Courage’s page on “Signs and Symptoms.”

    Children have a difficult enough time navigating online behavior and social media. The effects of online harassment can have devastating consequences. [Impact of online sexual harassment] The opportunity for misconduct, abuse, and harassment has grown exponentially. With the recent pandemic, teachers and students moving to “distant learning” have introduced yet another layer. Your school should set very clear expectations, to both students and employees, on proper boundaries and behaviors. There is no federal law on cyberbullying (which some online sexual abuse falls under), so it is up to each individual state. Make sure your school has consulted with your legal counsel and reviewed your state laws to help set your policy. [Cyberbullying Laws at the State Level]

    Pandemic Specific Restorative Justice

    Restorative justice measures can be a useful tool for helping children readjust to a classroom after long breaks or major changes in how they are taught. We have included a list of resources designed for school communities to help with these transitions: 

    RJ activities for kids returning to school after covid

    National Conflict Resolution Center Scenarios

    Restorative Practices in the San Diego School District | NCRC