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. 

The Eyes and Ears of Boarding School

By Elena Levin, Brown University, Class of 2022

In my first creative writing course as a freshman in college, I decided to write my final short story about sexual misconduct on a boarding school campus, exploring a world that I had become very familiar with during my four years attending a New England prep school. The main character, a freshman girl, is abused by her male math teacher who also served as her dorm adviser. When receiving feedback, I was taken aback by my classmate’s responses, surprised by their critiques. Their concerns were mainly rooted in disbelief around boarding school culture. My classmates questioned some of the details such as a male teacher living in a girl’s dorm, the jammed-packed schedule, and stringent rules, believing my depiction of boarding school to be exaggerated and completely fictionalized. They could not wrap their heads around the details in the story that were based on my personal experiences and observations: the lack of support from the administration, the rampant hookup culture, and most of all the inappropriate relationships between students and teachers. My classmates’ feedback and observations triggered something in me, drawing me down a rabbit hole of self-reflection.   

At 14, the people who were in charge of my safety shifted from my parents to my school’s administration. The vast manicured campus of my high school had the appearance of a college and the expectations the school has for its students are often that of a college student. What comes with going to boarding school is an accelerated transition into adulthood. When I arrived at college I was surprised by the way in some areas I felt over-prepared, but in others, I lacked important skills that seemed to come easily to my classmates. We were trained well in time management and leadership skills, setting us up for academic success in college. However, understanding and witnessing healthy romantic and sexual relationships and learning to trust the administration to have the student body’s best interest in mind were not part of my high school experience. While adults were ever-present on campus, there were many ways in which the faculty and staff left us without proper emotional support and resources to thrive in our future endeavors, leaving me feeling unseen and ill-equipped when I entered a college social environment. 

Hookup Culture

On a co-ed high school campus filled with overscheduled teens experiencing high levels of hormones and stress, students will ultimately find ways to let off steam, either in healthy ways, channeling stress into sports or the arts, or through unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, skipping commitments, or sexual deviancy. Attending a preparatory school, early on it became clear that our purpose at the school was to get into an “acceptable” college. This meant I had to spend my time wisely doing homework, excelling at my sport, and gaining leadership positions to put on my resume. The pressure increased as college application deadlines approached. With this extreme pressure, it is not surprising that each year a handful of students went on medical leave for mental health reasons, transferred schools, or were asked to leave campus for breaking the rules. 

The hookup culture that existed at my boarding school, despite the rules and risk of punishment, was ever-present and at the core of the social hierarchy. At the top were upperclassmen, mainly male athletes, often affluent and with family legacy at the school. Female students had to obtain attention from someone at the top in order to be deemed socially relevant. While for male students their sport was what often defined their social worth, there were many more social and physical expectations for girls. To receive the attention of the boys at the top, girls had to dress a certain way, never repeat an outfit, and have connections with male and female upperclassmen. Money is at the root of all of these expectations. Excelling at a sport often requires equipment, participating in travel teams, and private coaching. Dressing well required having the trendiest clothes, often designer brands. Having connections with older students meant that there was most often a previous connection to the school, whether through a sibling or friend. These connections were indicators of a family tie to the school which often comes with privilege through family donations and the ability to pay for years of tuition. As a result, it felt like the social hierarchy was determined before the first time I even stepped on campus, and I immediately felt as though I was playing catch up in order to be integrated into the social scene.   

It must also be noted that there was a lack of representation and resources provided to LGBTQ students, which made heterosexual relationships the norm.  All rules were based on heterosexual assumptions. The way that the school day was structured, only 30 minutes were given to students to interact with opposite-sex students in a non-academic setting. The time limits created pressure to engage in the hookup culture during the specified times, creating a sense of urgency in sexual activity which is a recipe for transactional sexual behavior. LGBTQ couples were able to interact freely with one another as long as the administration was not aware. The absence of clear policies provided LGBTQ couples with more freedom to explore those relationships but came with a tendency to hide to prevent the school from becoming involved which may have led students to hide or suppress who they truly are. The focus on heterosexual couples may have put LGBTQ students at risk with the lack of clear procedures and institutional support. 

The way things were written in the school’s handbook, it appeared that the school thought all private interactions were inherently sexual. While there were a few locations that permitted male and female students to interact, such as the dining hall and student activities center, these locations came with a lack of privacy that is often necessary to form meaningful and healthy relationships. In order to visit one another’s dorm room, heterosexual couples would have to receive approval from an on-duty dorm adviser, and were required to keep their dorm room door open and have three feet on the floor at all times. Dorm advisors would periodically check in on students to ensure that no inappropriate behaviors were occurring. Students were put in an uncomfortable position having to ask for permission as the advisor on duty could very well be their teacher or coach. The process of requesting permission ultimately required that teachers involve themselves in the student’s social life and, consequently, to have an opinion on the relationship by either approving or rejecting a visitation request. As the faculty fills the parental role, this process blurs the line between faculty and students in a way that does not happen at day schools. By involving the faculty in the student’s social decision-making, it’s not surprising that many students broke these rules to prevent the school from getting involved. The tendency to sneak around in this sense is not specific to boarding school culture but becomes more complex when teachers are acting as the authority figure in and out of the classroom. 

Although sex was decriminalized my junior year in the student handbook, the rules to prevent sexual activity were still in place. This meant that students were punished for breaking visitation rules rather than the sexual activity itself. These rules were created to keep students from “fooling around” in school buildings and naturally, students had to get creative to get around this rule. Unfortunately, the rules that were in place to prevent sexual misconduct and sexual activity on campus put students in unsafe situations where they were not only sneaking around the rules but isolating themselves in places where they couldn't be caught. In occurrences of sexual misconduct, students may have avoided reporting incidents and utilizing the existing resources since early on we were taught, breaking rules will prevent you from getting into a good college.

Indoctrination 

I remember my first night freshman year of high school, listening to girls describe their plans to hook up with junior boys on the hockey and lacrosse teams. They planned on going for a “walk” around campus, which I quickly learned meant sneaking to a dark corner of campus to hook up. The pressure to engage in the hookup culture was intense from all angles. Mealtime conversations were often centered around the previous night’s hookups discussed or debunked. Many of these conversations were focused on how far the female student was willing to go to please the male. The “further” women were willing to go, the more social capital they received. I watched female students climb the social ladder seemingly overnight after hooking up with the “right people” and doing the “right things.” 

I was even was given unsolicited advice from a sophomore dorm-mate who told me that if I wanted a boyfriend I would have to perform oral sex. This ultimately created a power dynamic between the male and female-identifying students placing male pleasure above female needs. I was taught that a successful sexual encounter in the eyes of my peers would have to leave the male satisfied. The rules in place to protect students ultimately taught me that interactions with the opposite sex have a time limit and ultimately made sexual activity transactional and a form of rebellion. This combined with the social pressure to engage in the hookup culture created an unhealthy pressure to engage and, for many, also a fear of engaging.

It is essential for school leaders to understand that early on students are indoctrinated into this hookup culture and begin to develop a foundation for their intimate relationships in adulthood. During adolescence, social experiences and sexual exploration are a significant and healthy part of the developmental process. Teaching students that sex is unacceptable and will derail their future is an unhealthy lesson that many students will carry with them after graduation. In my experience, this detrimental relationship with sexual behavior led me to believe that the rules and culture that existed at my high school would be the same in college. I never had the opportunity to unlearn what my high school had taught me, which I now can see led me down a dangerous path when I got to college. I carried the belief that my social worth was dependent on not only sex but also who my peers would deem an acceptable mate. It was ingrained in me that my self-worth was directly tied to external validation from men. It made me believe that in order to be accepted by my peers, sometimes I would have to do things I may not want to or be ready for. This left very little space for me to account for my own needs, desires, and sexual identity. 

Realizing I received little to no official sexual education during high school compared to some of my college classmates was a disturbing revelation. Although during sophomore year, we were required to take “Sophomore Seminar,” which was meant to serve the same purpose as a traditional sex-ed course, my section occurred during a massive lice outbreak, and our instructor was forced to cancel our section multiple times. The sections that we did have included us watching clips of college students dying from alcohol poisoning and playing a bowling game about STD names and symptoms. Not once did we discuss safe sex practices or what a healthy relationship looks like. In fact, going into college, the only “sex talk” I received was in middle school, and it focused solely on female menstruation and male pleasure. This gap in our curriculum, combined with the toxic hetero-normative hookup culture, created an unsafe school environment that was only perpetuated by the administration. The school’s active avoidance in engaging the student body in these important conversations created a disconnect between the students and adults who were supposedly there to keep us safe and have our best interest in mind.

I believe that these unhealthy perceptions of sex that were embedded in my mind by my high school’s hookup culture put me at risk. I was assaulted my sophomore year of college by a male varsity athlete. While I know I was not at fault, I can’t help but question how I ended up in that situation and what role my high school experiences played in leading me to that point. While my college gives students information on how to take action against perpetrators, there is still room for improvement. I was encouraged by the Title IX office to informally report the assault because of the nature of the incident. Taking the informal route, the office contacted my perpetrator requesting that he come into the office to discuss the incident and have a conversation about consent. When he didn’t respond to Title IX, I was left without support. No faculty member reached out or followed up with me following the initial report. It is unsettling to know that my perpetrator continues to walk free, without receiving any knowledge of why what he did was wrong or any education to prevent him from doing what he did to me to someone else. While it’s the student’s choice to take action against their perpetrator, it’s the school’s obligation to maintain contact and follow up with students who may not take formal legal action. Although I took action against my perpetrator, many students do not have the tools to do so. I believe that my experience as a peer educator, consent educator, and prefect in a freshman dorm during high school, is what allowed me to understand the importance of speaking up when misconduct occurs. It is important to note, though, that I sought out these opportunities: my experience should not be taken as the norm. 

The School’s Role and Reactions 

During my 10th grade year, word got around that multiple women came forward to report a junior male track star who assaulted each one of them on different occasions. This moment should have been a sign to the school that reform was needed. The administration failed to see this as an opportunity for the student body to be educated on consent, safe sex behaviors, and available emotional and legal resources. Since the majority of the student body seemed to know about what occurred, mainly because the perpetrator posted on social media defending himself against the allegations, we were all waiting for our headmaster or dean of students to speak up during this tumultuous time; however, they never did. School meeting after school meeting we waited for someone, any familiar adult, to provide us with clarity and support. Many students took the perpetrator’s side and doubted the women who came forward, feeding the women’s pain and creating a culture unsafe for victims and survivors. As a result of the social hierarchy where male athletes lived at the top, the perpetrator’s point of view was prioritized in the conversation about the incident and perpetuated the culture of placing male students’ needs and long-term success above the females. It was the school’s responsibility to gauge the campus conversation and work to fill the knowledge gaps that were reinforcing victim-blaming and toxic relationships.

Instead of the administration using its voice and power to gain the student’s trust and educate us, they responded by bringing a play on campus that dealt with issues of sexual assault and victim-blaming. Many of the students found the play powerful and educational, but many did not take it seriously. If the administration had shared their thoughts and given the student body a clear sense of the school’s position and expectations around these topics, the play may have had its desired effect. Because the administration remained mostly silent, avoiding these conversations and teaching moments with the student body, our needs and safety were overlooked.

The following year, I observed students making efforts to reform the school’s culture only to be shut down by the administration. Junior year, a group of female students in my class created a student-run organization that educated students on sexual misconduct, consent, and the school’s resources - a clear reaction to the lack of leadership from the administration who avoided these topics, at the expense of the students. These amazing women approached the Dean of Students to receive approval for the organization. The Dean rejected their pitch multiple times claiming “it wasn’t the right time.” It wasn’t until the fall of my senior year, right before the 2016 Boston Globe Article was released, that their efforts were accepted by the administration and the organization was approved. Why did it take so long to receive approval from the school? The students were able to see the need for education around safe-sex practices while the administration turned a blind eye. This sent a message to me and other students who wanted to be involved in educating the student body on prevention and intervention on this topic, that our safety was not a priority.  

My high school missed many opportunities to educate me and my peers in important relationship skills that would have set me up for social and emotional success in and out of college. When I arrived at college, the freedom to interact with members of the opposite sex, and even share a bathroom with them, came as a shock to my system. After years of being monitored and fearful of punishment, the independence that came with going to college was a blessing and a curse. Learning to live without constant supervision is a difficult transition for any adolescent, and for me, it was as if I had broken the chains that tied me to my high school’s rules, but I continued to be weighed down by the social expectations that had been ingrained in me for four years. I am forever grateful for the opportunities that my high school provided me which allowed me to develop interests and interpersonal skills that set me apart from my peers; however, as I enter my senior year of undergrad, I am still doing damage control when it comes to my self-worth and understanding my womanhood outside the context of my high school’s toxic hetero-normative hookup culture.  

Solutions 

It is essential that administrators at the high school and college level take into consideration not only the prevalence of sexual misconduct but also the campus culture that feeds these behaviors. I believe that the students at boarding schools are the only members of the community that truly know what’s going on, especially when it comes to the hookup culture since engaging in those behaviors is often against school rules and hidden from the faculty and staff. The neglect on the part of the administration to address these issues with the student body despite their knowledge of the culture and the student’s concerns is unacceptable and damaging to students during their formative years. 

On the high school level, school leaders should clearly lay out the resources available to students and teach them about healthy relationships. All students should also receive comprehensive sex and consent education, focused on preventing sexual assault and understanding the resources available to students. By placing focus on education and prevention, teaching students respect and compassion, the campus culture will improve over time. I was lucky that my peers in high school took action and started the conversation, expressing the importance of reporting misconduct, which led me to my university’s Title IX office in my time of need. 

On both the high school and college level, it is essential that all schools acknowledge that in order to change their culture, prevention must be prioritized equally, if not more, than intervention. These preventative measures will teach students the skills to engage in healthy and safe sexual activity, and if misconduct occurs, they will be able to note inappropriate behaviors in reference to their understanding of what is right and wrong.  This will hopefully lead them to the appropriate resources in times of need.

Conclusion 

During my time at boarding school, I saw improvements from year to year as more student groups seemed to pop up around helping individuals with issues related to sexual safety. Many, if not all, of these efforts, were student-driven. It seems that during my time at boarding school, the students were ahead of their teachers knowing the true climate of the school and seeing the gaps in education, and filling those with clubs and community conversations. The students are the eyes and ears of campus culture since they are the people experiencing the school firsthand. It is the responsibility of the faculty and staff to prioritize the needs of the students as they are in loco parentis. Making sure that students are mentally and physically healthy should be a priority of the faculty and staff when our parents are not present to check in with us daily. Dorm advisers, coaches, teachers, and administrators should work to get to know the student in a healthy way. Teachers, coaches, and advisors should work to identify where each student needs emotional and academic support, and lead them to the proper resources to succeed. This effort requires the school to have a comprehensive knowledge of the campus climate and culture to identify and assess threats to students’ emotional and physical wellbeing. 

It is important to create a culture of trust between the students and the administration, rather than one of fear. Too often in my experience, students took action that would have improved the state of the school, but they were shut down by administrators. It is easy for the school to brush off students in times of need by mislabeling mental health issues, avoiding tricky conversations, or blaming timing. In order to empower and prepare students to take on life post-grad, the students need to be and feel heard and obtain the necessary skills to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally. The students are the school’s most valuable resource for community improvement and should be seen as such in order to create a culture of trust and respect. 

Disclaimer: 

​​The views and opinions expressed through this blog are solely those of the original author. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Learning Courage staff and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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.

Sexual Violence Against Boys - The Key to Reducing Violence Against Women

A recent article in the Washington Post highlights the prevalence of sexual violence against boys, along with the impact on society, including increased incidents of physical and sexual violence, substance abuse, mental health and more. It's written by staff reporter, Emma Brown, who speaks from her own experience as a mother trying to raise her son. Brown writes with compelling evidence about not just the untold prevalence of violence against boys but also about how it is a critical contributor to violence against girls and women. At Learning Courage, we agree wholeheartedly with her conclusions. We clearly need more male voices talking about this to break down the deeply seeded cultural beliefs before we can effectively tackle this issue.

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.

Thorough

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.

Website

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. 

    Risk Assessment

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

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

    Environmental Scan

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

    Physical Space

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

    Policies and Procedures

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

    School Culture and Climate

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

    Administrative / Committee Structure

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

    Current Student Misconduct and Abuse

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

    Adult Misconduct and Abuse

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

    Historic Misconduct and Abuse

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

    Training

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

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

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

    Communications

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

    Board of Trustees

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

    Legal

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

    Insurance

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

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

    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.

    Investigations

    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.)

    Hearings

    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.  

    Appeals

    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.

    Student Handbook

    Students make up the majority of most schools’ populations. This means that the students have a critical role in influencing the culture and climate of the school, as much as - and possibly more than - the employees who, likely, will be at the institution for longer. The unspoken rules and interpretations of your school culture, frequently termed the “hidden curriculum”, often dictate pervasive attitudes and behaviors on campus.  Your student handbook sets expectations and outlines consequences. It is important that the culture of your school and your school’s handbook are aligned and that the rules you identify are followed.  Failure to align the culture and the rules create risk for your school. To ensure understanding among families, many schools combine a parent’s handbook with their student handbook.

    The student handbook is a valuable tool in which your school outlines your statement of purpose and your overall commitment to student well-being and safety. The handbook can serve as the platform for your school to convey and reinforce your culture, values, and expectations. Your student handbook must therefore provide clear guidelines around your school’s sexual misconduct and abuse policy.  Be as specific as possible in your explanation of terms and expectations.  

    It is imperative to reinforce these details in student or faculty-led discussions to emphasize these important rules and resources. Most people won’t spend the time needed to examine the handbook, so small discussions are critical for understanding and learning. Providing examples in your handbook of behaviors that support healthy relationships sets expectations of what you want to see, and it enables students to identify and support fellow students that may be struggling in their relationships. Use your student handbook to set the tone and establish clear expectations for healthy sexual attitudes and behavior.  

    We know that the bulk of your student handbook will contain expectations and rules around academics, as well as logistics of physical aspects of the school day. Below we outline some of the topics Learning Courage thinks are essential to also include in your student handbook as they relate to sexual misconduct and abuse and healthy relationships. 

    Stating Your School’s Culture 

    Learning Courage believes that your student handbook should begin with your school’s mission statement and a core values statement.  It must be a source of information on your school’s culture and sets expectations for student behavior. Furthermore, your school should explain and elaborate on what actions your school will take in order to maintain a safe, healthy, and inclusive school culture. A student handbook should clearly reinforce your school values and explicitly state how those values manifest in all aspects of school life and then how they are implemented.  Recognize the ways in which your culture may not mirror your values and therefore have a larger impact on the nature of romantic and sexual relationships on campus.  Use these disconnects as opportunities for discussion to reinforce healthy behaviors and prevent misinterpretation. These details will help demonstrate your school’s commitment to student safety and well-being. For more information see our “Commitment to Student Safety and Well-being” page.

    Student Safety and Wellness

    Student safety and well-being is critical for all schools. Most schools have an assortment of student safety and wellness resources available to students. The most common resources are policies on school violence and emergency procedures. In addition to these, we highly recommend providing the process for reporting incidents of sexual misconduct and unsafe behavior. The student handbook should outline these different resources at your school as well as their role in helping survivors and victims of sexual misconduct and abuse in their healing processes. Example of services your school might have are:

    These resources should be available in the student handbook as well as easily found on your school website. For more information see “Supportive Services” and “Crisis Response Guide” pages. 

    Acknowledgment and Understanding of Material 

    To abide by it, students must read and understand the handbook. A starting point for this is requiring that students acknowledge in writing they have read and will adhere to the details outlined in the handbook. The challenge is ensuring that the details within the handbook are truly understood - especially since it makes sense to affirm understanding and commitment to adhering to policies at the beginning of each academic year, at a time that can be overwhelming for students.

    Learning Courage, therefore, encourages you to provide students opportunities for discussions surrounding important aspects of the handbook. Before being required to sign the acknowledgment, there could be a Q&A session or small group discussions on the content of the handbook and different scenarios that reinforce understanding. Workshops or advisory circles are another common venue where students and faculty can discuss the handbook before signing their acknowledgment of the content. Residential life programs, where applicable, offer still another platform for discussion. Furthermore, your school should encourage conversations throughout each year related to misconduct to support a culture of safety and transparency of the expectations of the handbook. Your students should understand and be comfortable with what they are agreeing to. 

    Making your student handbook public on your website is a decision for each school. While you may have concerns about making the student handbook available on your public website, we recommend you consider this because it demonstrates your willingness to share your clear, transparent expectations, guidelines, and consequences for attitudes and behavior at your school. It also demonstrates how you uphold these standards and hold the community accountable to them. 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. 

    At a minimum, your school should use the website to clearly list resources and define terms relating to sexual misconduct and abuse. Most importantly, this document should be readily available for all enrolled students to use as a resource whether it is published on the public website or not.

    Sexual Harassment, Misconduct and Abuse Policies

    This part of the student handbook is a place of opportunity for your school to clearly label and define sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse, and show how your school will place itself in the best position to create a transparent culture around these topics. You want there to be no doubt what these terms mean and how community members can get support if they were to experience one of them. If it is clear what constitutes harassment, misconduct, and abuse at your school, it will also allow you to engage in more thorough, thoughtful investigation processes. Some incidents at your school might fall into multiple categories such as hazing that occurs with sexual violence or bullying that takes place via sexual harassment. It is therefore important that all of these terms are defined clearly in the handbook for students' information. 

    For more information surrounding sexual misconduct, abuse, and harassment policies see:

    Reporting Requirements 

    Informing your student body on the many factors regarding reporting requirements will ideally help your students feel protected when talking to adults on campus. Your school may have different reporting requirements for harassment and sexual misconduct and abuse, but they should be clear. Mandatory reporting roles vary by school, and laws vary by state. All adults and students must know who are the mandated reporters and what that person is required to do with the information shared. If your state does not designate all adults as mandatory reporters, community members need to know with whom they are able to speak. It is also important to outline the implications (i.e., whether the information is sent to the police or not) of reporting information to certain members of the community. 

    There are many different companies that provide anonymous reporting and whistleblower services. Learning Courage recommends your school consider using an anonymous reporting option. That information should be easy for everyone to access and use. Ideally, it should be on your school’s website as well as in the handbook. Learning Courage also recommends that you include other resources for students who may not want to report their experiences (i.e., Rape Crisis Center, National Suicide Hotline, etc.) For more information see the “Reporting Requirements” page. 

    Resources 

    Schools are designed to serve their students. Creating supportive, safe spaces for students to be successful is every school's goal. For students to be and feel safe, they must know what resources are available to them. You should be honest and transparent regarding the resources you can provide to students and explain these resources in the handbook. Some resources that your school should provide and explain in the handbook include but are not limited to:

    Terms and Definitions

    Include a section for terms and definitions related to sexual misconduct and abuse. You will signal to students and adults in your community your understanding and commitment to student safety and well-being. Furthermore, using these words will help your school articulate its desired culture in a very precise way. Many students may not have a full understanding of these terms, so it is important to thoroughly define them. For comprehensive definitions of the aforementioned words visit Learning Courage’s “Definition of Terms” page. 

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

    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