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.

A Crisis Is Coming - Is Your Board on Board?

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

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

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

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

To read the full article, click here.

A Survivor's Journey - The Impact of Abuse

The Chorus of Critics

I recognize that it’s impossible to separate how much my life - the way I act and think - would be different if I hadn’t been sexually abused.  Being sexually abused changed me in both profound and small ways. I believe that the abuse magnified existing, latent and emerging impulses and thoughts.  I don’t believe it’s useful or even possible to identify how different I would be if I had not been abused.  But I do think it’s important to acknowledge what consequences feel directly tied to the abuse I sustained.  My objective in writing this, after all, is to provide perspective rather than definitive connections. And much of what I describe here are common reactions to sexual abuse. My experience is therefore not unique at all.  Rather it is all too common.  Above all, I write this with the intention to help others understand.  I hope you will read it with that in mind.    

What follows, therefore, is a brief list of ways I believe the abuse impacted me, both during high school and the years that followed.

The Chorus of Critics - This is what I call the unproductive voices in my head that grew in volume and confidence during high school.  They ganged up on me, preventing me from focusing in school, on the sports field and even during social interactions.  You’re not good enough. What makes you think you can do that? You know you will fail!   Voices of doubt are part of the human condition. For most adolescents, they come and go.  Mine just sat on my shoulder and yelled at a volume that drowned out a lot of what was going on around me. To say this was a distraction is an understatement in the extreme.  I was berated incessantly. If things were going OK, the critics told me things were about to go south any second.  If I was doing something poorly or received a bad grade, they jumped up and down and screamed. You see?  We told you this would happen!  Why do you even bother? 

Over time and with lots of therapy, I began to recognize the power that the Chorus had over me and how damaging they were - and also the reason they existed.  They were part of my protective shell.  Today I’m more practiced at talking back to them, thanking them for protecting me from being disappointed or hurt.  I try to recognize when they are helpful.  The vast majority of time, though, they hold me back.  Thankfully, they hold less sway with me today than they did earlier in my life when I couldn’t separate them from the truth.

Shame - The Chorus of Critics are fueled by shame.  They have a voracious appetite for it.  They have an encyclopedic memory of my behavior and thoughts, and they used this evidence to remind me that I wasn’t worthy, wasn’t good enough, that someone else was more deserving.   While I knew intellectually that the abuse was not my fault, this shame guided my behavior. It created this self-sabotaging doom loop that prevented me from committing to anything wholeheartedly.  If I didn’t succeed, I could always tell myself that at least I hadn’t really given it everything I had. This played out in the classroom and on the sports field primarily, but it was a pervasive mindset that informed the calculation for many decisions.  As with the Chorus of Critics, I began to see how detrimental this mindset was for me - particularly in my professional life.  Knowing something is bad for you is important.  Changing the well-worn grooves on this vinyl record took years.

While I would sing with passion and emotion in front of my bedroom mirror in my high school days, I held back in front of my band mates.  I did a semester program with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) my fall semester of my first year of college.  When my trip leader suggested I consider taking the Instructor’s Course, I was flattered and terrified.  I could never be that much of a leader, I told myself.  I never applied.

I thought I had processed the abuse over the years, much of that in therapy sessions but also with close friends and family.  What I realized, however, was even recently, as I wrote my first blog post, some of the words that came out of my head and onto the page were still laden with guilt.  Seeing the words and phrases on the page gave me an opportunity to recognize the shame that still infiltrated my words.  Once I could see it, I was able to re-think and then re-write the details, using words that were more appropriate for the power differential and conflict that the abuse created within me.   

Self-Doubt / Lack of Confidence - The manifestation of the Chorus of Critics and the shame was a crippling lack of confidence.  If I wasn’t worth my parents or the school leadership sticking up for me, for protecting me, I certainly wasn’t going to do it on my own.  I was, in my own mind, only at the school because of my family history and because my mother worked in the development office at the school.  Why else would the school have admitted me?  Any merits I thought I could contribute and might even be recognized for were invisible at Milton.

Substance Use- I started using weed in 7th grade.  That was early compared to many of my peers.  I had friends who were 1 and 2 years ahead of me in school, so I was exposed at a younger age than most of my classmates.  And after the bike trip, when the leader abused me, being high was my preferred state.  It was my escape.  I got high during school, and I often got high after finishing my homework at night.  I drank too, although I didn’t like the feeling of being out of control.  And with a family history of alcoholism, I was always wary of drinking too much.  

The allure of being high led me to experiment with other substances. I suppose the Chorus of Critics helped me as I experimented because I often found myself caught up in the cacophony of their droning reminders of my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. I believe that my fear of becoming an alcoholic combined with the Chorus of Critics playing such a loud soundtrack actually prevented me from going down the rabbit hole of addiction - an all too-common result of sexaul abuse. Cannabis, though, was always a reliable escape. 

Aversion to Leadership - I neither trusted nor wanted to be a leader. Leaders had failed me at Milton.  The leader of the bike trip failed me by abusing me.  The Head of school failed me and others by not holding my abuser accountable, enabling him to abuse an untold number of other students until he was finally fired for abusing another student five years after the school knew of my abuse. 

The pinnacle of my leadership was when my small group expedition on NOLS voted me to lead them.  This was a three-day trek through Utah’s Canyonlands National Park.  There were no roads where we were heading.  We just had a destination and a time we needed to be there.  While leading this type of group was comfortable to me, when it came to more formalized institutions, I steered clear. Not only did I not trust leaders, I wasn’t good enough in my own thinking.  I didn’t deserve to be a leader.  Avoiding leadership is, in business vernacular, a career limiting move. I tried to muscle through my early career with this internal conflict playing in the background.  I worked in positions that weren’t a good fit for my aptitudes.  And after nearly 20 years in large corporate jobs, I left that world behind.  This freed me up to create my own comfort with leadership, but that sentiment still lingers: a holdover from mistrusting leaders.   

Need to be liked - The one area that I actually felt successful was in friendships.  I valued friendships more than anything.  While this is still true today, I am less likely to do or say things to others that I think they want or I believe will make them like me.  In high school, my need to be liked was nearly pathological.  I feared people disliking me.  This wasn’t true for teachers, but maybe that’s because I was abused by one. 

For me, having friends and being likable was my only ammunition against the Chorus of Critics. The only time I could prove them wrong was in my friendships.  At least people like me. I can make friends easily.  And the longer I know them, the more I can be myself.  What a great feeling.   I didn’t have to work as hard with my childhood friends.  I knew they were with me, but with others I always had lingering insecure thoughts that I was one stupid move away from being cast out. The Chorus of Critics knew this fear, and they reminded me often.

Adult Life - I have written here mostly about the impact of my abuse that I carried with me through high school.  The reality is that these impacts don’t just disappear over time.  It’s not like an external wound that you can care for with salves and bandages.  These internal wounds stay with you.  Sometimes they deepen over time while other times they fade in the hold they have over you.  But they don’t typically get better over time without mental health support.

For some, even seeking mental health support is stigmatized, seen as a weakness or disloyalty to one’s family.  I am lucky that I knew therapy would be important for me.  And I’m lucky that I could afford it.  And yet even with the work I have done over the past 40 years, I carry these scars with me.  Many are not so lucky.  They don’t or can’t afford to seek therapy.  For some, the pain becomes too difficult to bear.  Suicide and substance abuse are very common results among victims of sexual assault.  In a 2001 study in Australia, “young people who had experienced child sexual abuse had a suicide rate that was 10.7 to 13.0 times the national Australian rates.” And in a 2001 National Institutes of Health study, 72% of participants with substance abuse reported past sexual abuse.

For me, recovery and healing is ongoing.  

I am lucky.  Many victims of abuse become swallowed by the shame.  They often turn to substances to relieve the pain, to escape from it.  For others, the dark specter of depression is a constant visitor.  Many turn to suicide, unable to bear the weight of their pain.  Unable to see a way out.  

Intervention - ideally early intervention - and support from family and friends is essential for healing. There is a way out. 

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If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. If you're having suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area at any time (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). If you are located outside the United States, call your local emergency line immediately.

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. 

    Hiring and Firing

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

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

    Hiring Process

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

    Hiring Committee:

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

    Institutional Values:

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

    Implicit Bias:

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

    Scripts for Interviews:

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

    Candidate Visits:

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

    Reference Checking:

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

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

    Offers:

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

    Onboarding:

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

    Dismissals 

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

    School and Board Leadership

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

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

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

    Leadership Alignment

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

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

    Governance Structure

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

    Responding to Sexual Misconduct and Abuse: Response Team/Taskforce

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Reducing Sexual Misconduct and Abuse:

    Safety Committee/Health and Wellness Committee

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

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

    Communication

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

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

    Risk Assessment

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

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

    Environmental Scan

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

    Physical Space

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

    Policies and Procedures

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

    School Culture and Climate

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

    Administrative / Committee Structure

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

    Current Student Misconduct and Abuse

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

    Adult Misconduct and Abuse

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

    Historic Misconduct and Abuse

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

    Training

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

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

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

    Communications

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

    Board of Trustees

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

    Legal

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

    Insurance

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

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

    The Board's Role in a Sexual Misconduct Investigation

    By Lisa Donohue, Board President, Milton Academy

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

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

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

    CRITICAL BOARD WORK 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    LEADING THE WAY 

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

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

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

    Definition of Terms

    When discussing sexual misconduct and abuse, there are many terms and definitions that schools use. Some people may be hearing or reading them for the first time. And often they include legal jargon. This can make policies ambiguous or confusing. Thus, having a clear set of definitions and terms can help reduce ambiguity. With definitions that are accessible to all, students and community members, everyone has a clear idea of their rights and obligations as a member of the community. In some cases, the definitions in this document include observations based on our work.

    A link to the age of consent by state: Statutory Rape: A Guide to State Laws and Reporting Requirements. Sexual Intercourse with Minors

    Boundary: Healthy relationships are critical to providing a safe learning environment for students. Defining appropriate lines of behavior for adults and students is essential for establishing and maintaining healthy relationships. Boundaries are physical as well as emotional. Clear boundaries allow for safe relationships. Boundary violations occur when a person trespasses a boundary. (source)

    Bullying: “An ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behavior that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm. It can involve an individual or a group misusing their power, or perceived power, over one or more persons who feel unable to stop it from happening.” (source) Bullying can occur in-person as well as online. 

    Some examples of bullying include, but are not limited to:

    Child sexual abuse: A form of child abuse that includes sexual activity between an adult and a child. This does not need to include physical contact between a perpetrator and a child. This includes but is not limited to:(source)

    Complainant: According to Title IX, a person who makes a formal complaint in a court of law that they have been harmed by someone else. We recommend that “reporting party” be used instead of “complainant” in order to avoid any negative connotations of the individual seeking help.

    Consent (as it relates to sexual activity): An agreement given between participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent facilitates respect and communication between individuals as they make decisions together. The legal age of consent varies from state to state. We at Learning Courage recognize that sexual activity may occur among students under the age of consent however, it is still important for consent to be given and maintained during sexual activity. Consent can be withdrawn at any point during the activity. Consent to perform one sexual activity does not mean that consent has been given for another sexual activity. Consent cannot be given if a person is incapacitated and it cannot be gained through force. Silence does not indicate consent has been given. Consent is a complex topic; In fact, we believe that a lack of understanding of the practical application of consent is where the majority of abuse and misconduct occurs. Therefore, we believe that there should ongoing training, workshopping, and visual reminders in shared spaces throughout the year on consent with students.

    Consent can be:(source)

    RAINN’s law generator highlights the Consent Laws for each state and what constitutes as consent (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network)

    Dating violence: “Dating violence is a pattern of assaultive and controlling behaviors that one person uses against another in order to gain or maintain power and control in the relationship.” (source) Any person, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, or ethnicity can experience dating violence. Dating violence can occur in both serious and casual relationships. This can include physical abuse, emotional abuse, and electronic abuse (such as posting private pictures sent by a partner).

    Domestic violence: Domestic violence is abuse that occurs within the home. Domestic violence can occur to anyone, regardless of their age, gender, or sexual orientation. It includes physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. 

    Faculty and Staff: Any and all people employed by the school. 

    Force: Doesn’t always refer to physical pressure. Perpetrators may use emotional coercion, psychological force, or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex. Some perpetrators will use threats to force a victim to comply, such as threatening to hurt the victim or their family or other intimidation tactics. (source)

    Gender: Noun that can be usefully divided into two separate concepts. First, gender identity describes a person’s own internal—and often deeply held—a sense of their gender. Many people have a gender identity of “man” or “woman” (or “boy” or “girl”), but for many others, their gender identity does not fit neatly into one of those two categories. Second, gender expression describes external manifestations of gender, including behavior, name, preferred pronouns, clothing, hairstyle, voice, and/or body characteristics. Society identifies these cues as masculine and feminine, although what is considered masculine and feminine changes over time and varies by culture. Gender expression should not be viewed as an indication of sexual orientation.

    Gender-based harassment: Gender-based harassment is harassment based on one’s gender. It does not involve explicit sexual behavior, but includes epithets, slurs, and negative stereotyping of a person based on their gender identity/expression or because they do not conform to stereotypical norms of femininity or masculinity. Transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are protected from gender-based harassment under Title IX.

    Grooming: “Grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust, and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them.” (source) Grooming can be done by any individual, regardless of age, class, or gender. Grooming can occur over the internet as well as in person. It involves an adult attempting to gain the trust of a child with the goal of sexual abuse. See “Signs and Symptoms of Abuse” for additional information.

    Harassment: Unwelcome conduct or behavior that is personally offensive or threatening and that has the effect of impairing morale, interfering with a person’s work performance, or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment. There are many forms of harassment including but not limited to sexual, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, race, color, religion, national origin to name a few. Harassment can occur between two individuals or groups of individuals and can occur via any medium of communication – for example and without limitation, verbal, written, email, text messages, and postings on the Internet or social media (whether anonymous or authored). Forms of harassment include, but are not limited to, written and oral remarks. The target of the harassment determines whether they feel harassed.  Harassment is not determined by the responding party’s intent. 

    Hazing: “Any action taken or any situation created intentionally that causes embarrassment, harassment or ridicule and risks emotional and/or physical harm to members of a group or team, whether new or not, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate,”(source) It may commonly occur when joining a new team (such as a sports team, honor society, or Greek life)

    Some examples of hazing include, but are not limited to:

    Hazing legislation varies by state. State Laws 

    Hook-up culture: A culture that accepts or encourages individuals to engage in uncommitted sexual activity. Hook-up culture can contribute to social pressure for sex and impact understanding of consensual behavior.

    Hostile work environment: Creating a work environment that a reasonable person would find hostile, abusive, or intimidating. Offensive conduct includes offensive jokes, sexually-suggestive pictures, and slurs. (source)

    Immunity: Students who may have violated other school policies during an incident of sexual misconduct or abuse may be hesitant to report the incident. With immunity policies, students are given immunity for school policy violations when reporting sexual misconduct or abuse incidents. This practice encourages individuals to report sexual misconduct or abuse without fear of formal discipline for school policy violations. At Learning Courage, we believe that policies that support reporting are best practices.

    Incapacitation: The inability, temporarily or permanently, to give consent because the individual is mentally and/or physically helpless, asleep, unconscious, or unaware that sexual activity is occurring. Incapacitation may result from the use of alcohol and/or drugs. (source) Consent cannot be given if a person is incapacitated.

    Incest: Sexual relations between unmarried family members (cousins, parent-child, siblings, step-siblings, aunts/uncles, etc.)

    Intimidation: Unlawfully placing another person in reasonable fear of bodily/emotional harm through the use of threatening words and/or other conduct, but without displaying a weapon or subjecting the victim to actual physical attack

    Mandatory Reporting: “A mandated reporter is an adult who is required by law to report to law enforcement or child protective services when they think that a minor or other vulnerable person may be experiencing abuse.” (source) At Learning Courage, we believe that all members of your school community must understand what is meant by mandatory reporters and the implications of sexual abuse and misconduct disclosure to mandated reporters. Refer to the decision tree in “Sexual Misconduct Policies and Procedures.

    Mandated reporters differ by state. RAINN has a law report generator to find out who is a mandatory reporter and for what: Mandated Reporter

    Mediation: An attempt to resolve a dispute or conflict through the participation of a third party; the reporting party has the opportunity to share their experience and the responding party can attempt to repair harm. See also “Restorative Justice.

    Neglect: Failure to protect a child from exposure to any kind of danger or extreme failure to carry out important aspects of care, resulting in the significant impairment of the child’s health and development.  Neglect can take many forms.  It can be both physical and emotional and includes failure to provide access to things known to be essential for healthy human development.

    Non-consensual sexual contact: Any intentional sexual touching, however slight, with any object, by a person or people upon another person or people, that is without consent and/or is by force.  One easy way to help people of all ages understand consent is to show the short video, “Tea and Consent,” which uses tea as a replacement for sex.

    Online sexual abuse or misconduct: “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.”(source) Not only does this have the potential to create emotional and psychological harm for the victim, but the online transfer of sexually explicit photos of minors is considered child pornography and can lead to serious legal consequences. See also “Sexting

    Perpetrator: An individual who is accused of or has been convicted of committing an illegal act. Learning Courage uses the term “Responding Party” instead of perpetrator, particularly before there is a finding in the case.

    Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): A psychological disorder that emerges after a traumatic event like a car accident, natural disaster, combat, or sexual assault. This can come with symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, inability to concentrate, memory loss, and feelings of hopelessness. (source) PTSD creates impairment that makes those who suffer from it 3-5 times more likely to suffer from depressive episodes.  Also, 46.4% of those suffering from PTSD meet the criteria for substance use disorder. (source

    Power dynamics: The level of power that members of a community/organization possess relative to each other and how those levels influence their interactions. Power dynamics are often thought of in terms of age or hierarchy.  These dynamics can also include financial power and physical prowess in sports. 

    Quid pro quo harassment: “This occurs when a job benefit is directly tied to an employee submitting to unwelcome sexual advances. For example, a supervisor promises an employee a raise if she will go out on a date with him, or tells an employee she will be fired if she doesn't sleep with him.”(source) An example of this type of harassment in a school can include a teacher asking for a sexual favor from a student in exchange for a date with the student.

    Rape: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”(source) Rape can happen to people of all ages, genders, races, ethnicities, abilities, and sexual orientations. This legal definition is often not understood without training.  Teens, for example, are most likely to think of rape exclusively as vaginal or anal intercourse.  This broader definition is essential for everyone in the community to know given the implications for both the reporting and responding parties.

    Reparations: When addressing historical sexual misconduct or abuse, the school may decide to provide support to survivors in the form of funded therapy, mental health services, and compensation.  We believe that all schools need a plan for reparations. This enables those responding to reports to inform individuals of the options.  This proactive approach also demonstrates to the individual that there are ways available to support their healing.  We also see a direct relationship between the willingness to provide reparations and the cost and time required to respond to incidents.  When survivors feel they are being supported and cared for, they are able to focus more on their healing than on holding the institution accountable. 

    Reporting party: Any person who chooses to file a complaint about alleged sexual misconduct or abuse and/or a violation of school policy. Some organizations use the word “complainant.” We believe that “reporting party” is more neutral terminology and more appropriate where appropriate.

    Respondent: A term used in Title IX regulations, the party against whom a petition is filed, especially one on appeal. (source) See “Responding party”

    Responding party: Any person accused of sexual misconduct or abuse and/or a violation of school policy. Some organizations use the word “the accused” or “perpetrator”. We believe that “responding party” is more neutral terminology and more appropriate where appropriate.

    Restorative justice: A process by which the community, offender, and victim come together in an attempt to repair the damage done by a crime; it is intended to empower victims as well as heal harm done to communities by an offense(source) Restorative Justice does not replace investigations and findings or eliminate consequences for those who committed harm.  See also “Mediation

    Retaliation: An act meant to punish, intimidate, harass or bully a person for making a report of sexual misconduct or discrimination or providing information during a sexual misconduct and abuse investigation. Retaliation is unlawful and will be subject to discipline by the school.

    Retraumatization: Retraumatization can occur to anyone who has experienced a traumatic event. It occurs when a person is reminded of or re-experiences a traumatic event. Retraumatization can be mitigated by trauma-informed care.

    Retraumatization can be caused by:(source)

    Sexting: Sending and/or receiving sexual messages through technology such as a phone, app, email, or webcam. Sexting can involve words, pictures (sometimes called “nudes”), and videos. (source) See also “Online sexual abuse or misconduct.

    Sex trafficking: Modern-day form of slavery in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act is under the age of 18 years. Trafficking does not have to involve the transport of an individual, it can occur within a community or even within a school. (source)

    Sexual abuse: Unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent(source)

    Sexual assault: “The term sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the victim. Some forms of sexual assault include but are not limited to:”(source)

    Sexual assault can affect people of all genders, sexual orientations, races, ethnicities, abilities, and ages.

    Sexual coercion: Unwanted sexual activity that happens after being pressured in nonphysical ways. Anyone, including family members, strangers, friends, and dates can use coercion. Consent cannot be given under coercion. Some examples of sexual coercion include, but are not limited to:(source)

    Sexual exploitation: “An act or acts committed through non-consensual abuse or exploitation of another person’s sexuality for the purpose of sexual gratification, financial gain, personal benefit or advantage, or any other non-legitimate purpose.”(source) Some examples of sexual exploitation include but are not limited to:

    Sexual harassment: A form of sex discrimination that involves any unwelcome conduct, physical or verbal, of a sexual nature, including acts of misconduct based on gender identity or sexual orientation. This can include but is not limited to:(source)

    Sexual misconduct: “A broad term encompassing any unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that is committed without consent or by force, intimidation, coercion, or manipulation. Sexual misconduct can be committed by a person of any gender, and it can occur between people of the same or different gender.”(source) Similar to the term “sexual violence.” At Learning Courage, we use “sexual misconduct and/or abuse” to recognize the range in severity of harm. 

    Sexual violence: An all-encompassing umbrella term referring to crimes such as sexual assault, rape, or harassment. (source) 

    Stalking: Involves repeated victimization of the targeted individual, this can be criminal as well as non-criminal behavior targeted towards an individual. Some examples of stalking include but are not limited to:(source)

    Statutory rape: Sexual intercourse with an individual under the legal age of consent; this age varies by state(source). See “Age of consent.”

    Survivor: Someone who has, or is, going through the process of recovery after being affected by sexual violence. (source) At Learning Courage, we often use “victim” and “survivor” together to acknowledge that some people prefer one over the other. We believe that “survivor” is more empowering for the individual who has been harmed.

    Title IX: Title IX is a federal civil rights law that states: “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.”(source) 

    Title IX guidance requires every educational institution receiving federal funding to have a Title IX Coordinator, who ensures that the school is meeting Title IX regulations. For more information, see “Title IX Information.”

    Trauma: A psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. Trauma can occur after a person has experienced an event that threatened their security or life. A person who has experienced trauma may experience anxiety, confusing emotions, and/or feel disconnected from others. (source)

    Trauma-informed care: Recognizing that the person may have experienced trauma (including physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse) and responding with empathy and compassion towards that person while providing care or support. This can help to avoid unintentional retraumatization and better help the person in their healing process. (source) See “Retraumatization.”

    Trusted adult: An adult who young people and children may go to for help and support.  These individuals serve a critical role in supporting students through challenging circumstances.  However, there may be a difference between an adult who is trusted and an adult who is trained in how to respond appropriately.  This is one of the main reasons why Learning Courage advocates for those most likely to receive reports be appropriately trained and all others to receive at least a baseline of training in trauma response and mandated reporting.  

    Victim: Someone who has recently been affected by sexual violence. According to the “RAINN” website, the terms “victim” and “survivor” are often both applicable to a person. “Victim” is used more “when discussing a particular crime or when referring to aspects of the criminal justice system.” If it’s unclear whether someone should be referred to as a victim or a survivor, often the best thing to do is to ask for their preference.  At Learning Courage, we use “survivor” more than “victim” because we believe it’s more empowering for the individual.  We also use “victim/survivor” when referring to the criminal justice system.  

    Voice: Often used in the context of loss, as in having lost one’s voice for self-advocacy and an overall loss of individual power. This translates beyond intimate and sexual relationships and can have a lifelong impact on those who have been victimized.  The loss of voice in the context of sexual abuse typically refers to the figurative loss of voice rather than actually being unable to speak.  However, the freeze response that some who are assaulted experience may also feel incapacitated and unable to speak at the time.

    Voyeurism: Observing an unsuspecting person while they undress, are naked, or engage in sexual activities while that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. 

    Twelve states specifically outline penalties for voyeurism. See here for more information.

    Sources

    RAINN: RAINN | The nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization

    Information about Trauma-informed care: What is Trauma-Informed Care? - University at Buffalo School of Social Work

    Information about Trauma: What is Trauma

    Stalking information: Definition of Stalking — Judicial Education Center

    Sexual exploitation information: What is Sexual Exploitation? :: SHARE

    Workplace harassment: Harassment | US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

    National Center Against Bullying: Definition Of Bullying

    Supportive Services

    When students and alumni come forward with their stories of surviving sexual misconduct and abuse, it is both scary and one of the most courageous things they can do. Listening to and learning from these stories can be incredibly powerful ways for your school to grow. Furthermore, it is important that the students, alumni, and employees of the community know that you care about and want to hear what happened to them. Listening and learning from past experiences takes place through investigating the reports with integrity and providing any necessary support for those involved. This process is complex, but the supportive services you provide will help tremendously in the process of a survivor sharing and healing from past or current stories of sexual misconduct and abuse. Supportive services can focus on many different areas that are important in healing from trauma: emotional, therapeutic, financial, legal, living, and learning accommodations.

    At Learning Courage we see an opportunity associated with providing a variety of supportive services for students, alumni, and employees in your community. Establishing these services is one way for your school to show its commitment to community-wide well-being, care for victims and survivors, and developing policies and practices that are guided by integrity. Your school can exhibit these traits to show you are working towards and actually reducing sexual misconduct and abuse in your community. 

    Your school should create transparent plans regarding supportive services that are readily available and easily accessible to your community. An example of this is the list below that compiles the list of services that should be available on your school’s website and handbooks. 

    Supportive Services for Current Students 

    Supportive services for current students should be included in the health and wellness section on your school’s website. These services should also be clearly identified in the student handbook and around campus (i.e., in the wellness center, common areas, dorms, classrooms, hallways, etc.) 

    Clear Avenues for Student Assistance 

    Clearly communicating your sexual misconduct and abuse reporting policies and choices for victims and survivors on campus is important because it creates transparency and easy-to-access support for those seeking help. One way that your school can do this is by creating and promoting a decision tree that explains where anybody can get support on campus from multiple sources like administrators involved with the misconduct committee, school counselors, school nurses, the deans of students, and more. To make it easy to get the necessary help, cell phone or other monitored phone numbers should be included alongside the names and titles. Those responsible for fielding calls must be appropriately trained in responding to reports of sexual misconduct and abuse. 

    An example of a decision tree is shown below: 

    Counseling Services 

    Each school has different abilities to provide counseling services. Ideally, your school has licensed psychiatrists and/or counselors available to current students through your health and wellness centers on campus. These professionals should be on campus and available at all times when your school is in session. While not all schools may have a dedicated resource at all times, your school can, at a minimum, have licensed counselors associated or contracted with your school that can be brought in to support your students and paid for by the student’s parents/guardians. It is critical that these providers are trained on how to work with victims and survivors of sexual misconduct and abuse. 

    Medical Services 

    Equipping your school with medical professionals on campus to care for students is a priority. These professionals should be trained in caring for victims and survivors of sexual misconduct and abuse. Specifically, they should be trained in trauma response and be prepared with contacts and information about where students can receive medical care in the area. 

    Accommodations  

    Reporting sexual misconduct and abuse is just one part of the process for survivors. Sexual misconduct and abuse will impact all aspects of a survivor's life which is why it is important your school thinks about accommodation services. Your school should have its own thorough plans tailored to your ability to accommodate reporting and responding parties. The goal of your school creating accommodations should always be to maintain the health and well-being of your students and also to limit the exposure between reporting and responding parties. 

    As stated in our best practice philosophies, Learning Courage emphasizes the importance of policy adherence. Not only does your school need to be ready with these plans regarding different accommodations for reporting and responding parties, but you must also adhere to these plans when reports are disclosed. Furthermore, your institution ought to be forthright in its accommodation abilities. At Learning Courage, we believe that your school must both create broad awareness for reporting options and be prepared to quickly enact these accommodations for the reporting and responding parties. 

    Accommodations for both reporting and responding parties of sexual misconduct and abuse include such items as: 

    Defined Terms and Policies 

    Your school should clearly define key terms and policies such as counseling, sanctuary policies, confidentiality, mandated reporting, etc. Definitions for some of these keywords regarding supportive services can be found on the “Definition of Terms” page at Learning Courage

    Supportive Services for Alumni 

    It is Learning Courage’s belief that your school should best attempt to provide alumni with similar opportunities to access supportive services. These services should be readily accessible for alumni through your school’s website. For more information see Learning Courage’s page on “Historic Misconduct and Abuse.”

    Clear Avenues for Assistance For Alumni  

    In the same way, your school should provide support options for current students, it should also provide clear avenues for assistance for alumni who were victimized while attending your school. Your school will want to clearly establish the points of contact for alumni. This can be done by establishing a decision tree for alumni use. An example of a decision tree is shown above in the supportive services for students section. 

    Counseling 

    Learning Courage believes in providing alumni survivors similar services as current students where possible. One area that your school could have a plan for is facilitating alumni access to counseling services. Your school will want to look at different ways to provide alumni access to counseling whether it be through a financial assistance fund or by providing easy-to-access information on how to access mental health counseling. Whatever your school decides, it should make resources for counseling easily available for alumni. 

    Arbitration/Legal Services 

    Some schools provide arbitration and legal services to survivors of historic misconduct and abuse, but it is not a required component to supporting survivors. Learning Courage believes that this service would be counterproductive both to the survivor and to your school. A survivor is not likely to trust an attorney assigned to them by your school, and it is against your school’s interest to provide legal services to a survivor who may choose to take action against your institution. See more information on Learning Courage’s “Historic Misconduct and Abuse” section. 

    Supportive Services for Employees

    Employees may find themselves involved with reports of harassment, misconduct, or abuse through their duty to care for students and work with other adults. When a faculty member reports sexual harassment, misconduct, or abuse, your school should be ready to provide the reporting party and those supporting that party with the services they need for support. In addition to what support they receive, it is important for your school to outline what protections they will be given for being or associated with a reporting party (i.e. anti-retaliation policies, confidentiality, etc). 

    There are many different options for employees to get support as they navigate reports of misconduct and abuse at your school. One example is through your school’s employee assistance programs. These programs outline details such as whether your school refers legal counsel to employees, covers legal expenses for employees, and covers or refers employees to counseling services. Learning Courage suggests this information is included in training for all employees so that they are knowledgeable of the services that your school makes available to them.  This helps create transparent, supportive avenues for your employees. 

    Each school is unique in its own ability to provide supportive services to their employees.  The most important thing is that your school has a plan that is well articulated for those services. See more information in Learning Courage’s “Employee Handbook” section. 

    As a school, you care about your communities which means your students, employees, parents, alumni, and Board members. As such, it is important that your school outlines the ways you can and do support your community members when they have been impacted by sexual abuse or misconduct.  

    Restorative Justice

    Restorative justice (RJ) is “a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior.” [RestorativeJustice.org] This includes the rehabilitation of the perpetrator and reconciliation between the victim/community and the offender. Restorative justice measures can be used to resolve conflicts and strengthen communities. RJ practices have been used in some cultures for generations and perhaps most notably was used in South Africa to resolve and heal from many of the human rights atrocities that occurred during Apartheid. 

    When used in schools, RJ responses classify misbehaviors as “harms done to a community” and focuses on conflict resolution. This approach can be used as an alternative or supportive means to address harms and reduce expulsions and suspensions in a school. Another benefit of using RJ practices in schools is that it creates a community in which students learn to take responsibility for their actions as well as openly share their experiences. By doing this, students can strengthen skills in empathy and listening as well as form bonds within their school community.

    At Learning Courage, we recognize the power and potential of restorative justice in the cases of sexual misconduct or abuse because it can be an opportunity for survivors and communities to heal after an incident.  And we know that RJ practices have been used effectively in certain situations. It is important to note, however, that certain basic principles and guidelines need to be in place before restorative justice can be used. See “When are restorative justice measures appropriate for sexual misconduct or abuse?”

    How does restorative justice work?

    Restorative justice is a type of criminal justice system in which community safety and accountability are prioritized. This system requires offenders to take accountability for their actions and commit to corrective actions. The process includes a facilitated dialogue between the offender and the victim/community designed to recognize harm and establish accountability, provide a way to apologize, and to ask for forgiveness for the harm caused. The objective is to create awareness, to stimulate empathy by allowing the perpetrator to recognize the harm they have done, and to support healing and empowerment for the harmed parties. Restorative justice measures can be used for current or historical crimes. It does not have to entail forgiveness towards the offender - rather it facilitates a discussion meant to empower the survivor and allow for healing in the community. 

    “What’s fundamental about restorative justice (practices) is a shift away from thinking about laws being broken, who broke the law, and how we punish the people who broke the laws. There’s a shift to: there was harm caused, or there’s disagreement or dispute, there’s conflict, and how do we repair the harm, address the conflict, meet the needs, so that relationships and community can be repaired and restored. It’s a different orientation. It is a shift.” 

    Cheryl Graves-Community Justice for Youth Institute

    How restorative justice has been used for truth and reconciliation

    The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one striking example of how restorative justice can be used to address harms caused in a community. This commission used restorative justice measures to address the human rights abuses committed during the Apartheid. Victims were invited to speak about their experiences and the human rights abuses they faced. People responsible for harm spoke about the harms they committed and could request amnesty. [source] This allowed the nation to create a record of its Apartheid history, providing validation to victims and their families. Although this commission was only the start of South Africa’s reconciliation process, it still serves as a standard for how institutions can begin to repair harms in a community.

    Restorative Justice Results in Schools

    The Oakland Unified district, with its own widespread use of RJ, presented a report to the U.S Department of Education where they found that 88% of teachers reported restorative justice practices to be helpful in managing student behaviors in the classroom. The district also found that suspensions declined significantly, especially in the case of, “students suspended for disruption/willful defiance, down from 1,050 to 630, a decrease of 40% or 420 fewer suspensions in only one year.”[source] They found that schools employing restorative justice measures had an increase of 60% in four-year graduation rates, compared to a 7% increase for non-restorative justice schools. Today, the Oakland Unified school district has a restorative justice initiative that involves training and support for 40 restorative justice sites in the district. 

    In 2014, the San Diego Unified school district created a restorative justice district, training over 1,000 district staff in restorative justice practices. In 2017, they established a restorative justice department. They contract with the National Conflict Resolution Center for training and support. After only a year, the district reported a 60% decrease in expulsions as well as a reduction in drug-related calls.

    Restorative Justice and Title IX

    The Department of Education Title IX Final Rule allows for “informal resolutions” to be used in the cases of Title IX violations. This excludes cases where there is a power differential, such as a member of the faculty sexually harassing a student. After an incident of sexual misconduct or abuse, the survivor meets with the Title IX coordinator to discuss their options. “This includes the option to pursue a claim on-campus or criminally, to drop the complaint, or to request a restorative justice resolution.”[source] See Learning Courage’s section on “Title IX Information” for more information.

    How can restorative justice be implemented in classrooms?

    Restorative justice measures can be used in schools to facilitate a positive school climate as well as support student success. Building a community on the principles of restorative justice involves the use of community building circles, or dialogue circles. These circles are designed to help build a community together, allow members to share their thoughts, and commit to shared values and guidelines. These circles also allow members to learn to communicate respectfully with one another and voice honest feedback to facilitate healing. The topics of these discussions can include, but are not limited to, discussions about bullying, hazing, or other harms done to the community. Circles can be used on a regular basis as “check-ins” as well as for celebratory or grieving processes. Implementing these RJ practices can allow your school to create a community based on empathy and communication, allowing your students to better succeed in a positive school climate.

    Here’s an example of how one school found success: Using Dialogue Circles to Support Classroom Management 

    When are restorative justice measures appropriate for sexual misconduct or abuse?

    Restorative justice measures can allow a survivor to reclaim power in their healing process. However, these measures are not always the right approach. On some campuses, repeat offenders are not allowed to participate in restorative justice measures. These measures should only be put into place with the consent of a survivor as well as the consent of the offender. Restorative justice measures rely on four principles:

    1. The measures must ensure a space for inclusive decision-making. The survivor, offender, and community members must be given a voice to express the harms that have been done and share their experiences. 
    2. The offender must be willing to accept responsibility for the harms their actions caused.
    3. The offender must take action to repair the harm that they are responsible for.
    4. The offender must take responsibility for rebuilding trust.

    A trained facilitator, who may determine if restorative justice measures are appropriate, is needed for these measures. Restorative justice measures can also be used in classrooms to address the harm that has been done to the community.

    Survivors of sexual abuse may pursue restorative justice for some of the following reasons: [source]

    How can restorative justice measures be implemented to address sexual misconduct or abuse?

    Additional measures are put in place to address sexual misconduct or abuse. In these cases, a subsection of the harmed population participates. These discussions include reviewing the harm that took place as well as how further harm can be avoided. 

    Typically, for using restorative justice in the case of sexual misconduct or abuse, there are three phases. 

    1. In the first phase, the person responsible for the harm and the survivor meet separately with a facilitator. The survivor may write their story in their own words for the person responsible for harm to read. 
    2. In the second phase, the person responsible for the harm and the survivor will meet with a RJ coordinator present. Other supporting members of the survivor and person responsible for harm may also be present in these discussions. These discussions are meant to facilitate a dialogue about the incident and the harms that were caused as well as what can be done to avoid future harms. Restorative justice measures are not meant to excuse the behavior of the person responsible for harm, but rather allow for an explanation and path towards healing. The offender commits to corrective actions. These measures are intended to empower survivors as well as allow the person responsible for harm to have an opportunity to take responsibility for their actions.
    3. In the third phase, the facilitator checks in with the person responsible for the harm and the survivor to ensure that any promises made are fulfilled.

    It is important to note that restorative justice measures do not advocate that the offender go unpunished but rather that a meaningful discussion takes place so that measures to avoid future harm can be undertaken. It is important to note, using RJ is a separate process from investigations and any consequences that come from findings and should not be viewed as a replacement for them.  

    How can your school begin implementing restorative justice practices?

    Your school can work to implement restorative justice measures by forming a restorative justice team. This team can consist of 4-6 individuals, including a restorative justice facilitator who must be trained in RJ facilitation. Other individuals on the restorative justice team can include clinicians, counselors, teachers, and administrators. [source] Those trained can also lead training and other school-wide initiatives to implement restorative justice measures. Teachers can be trained to implement tier 1 of restorative justice practices which involves the use of dialogue circles in classrooms as well as trained to address students’ misbehaviors and concerns using restorative justice measures.

    When searching for a restorative justice facilitator, consider candidates who have:

    Alternatively, if your school has decided to instead train current faculty in restorative justice practices, Learning Courage is happy to share vetted resources with member schools.  

    Below is a diagram that gives you some insight into how Restorative Justice can be used in schools. It outlines who is involved and what kinds of situations these groups respond to best. 

    Investigations and Responding Practices

    Incidents of existing student-on-student sexual misconduct and abuse can be incredibly difficult for any school community to handle. In many instances, there are strong emotions, conflicting accounts, confidentiality constraints, and important relationships where there is a great deal at stake. Physically and emotionally caring for the individuals involved during these moments is essential and often has to be done in concert with caring for the school and school community as well.  In addition, there is an added challenge of maintaining privacy for those involved who are minors.

    Investigation and Response Protocols

    When dealing with investigating and responding to student-on-student sexual assault and abuse, it is important to support the emotional and physical wellbeing of the students while complying with laws, protecting privacy, and preserving evidence. All of this requires that you have a pre-established investigation and response protocol that is survivor-centric and trauma-informed. And these protocols must be followed. 

    To facilitate transparency, your investigations and responding protocols should be easy to find. These protocols should be included in your Sexual Misconduct Policy, the Employee and Student Handbooks, and your website. This information should also be included in your employee training so everyone on staff understands the details of the policy and the commitment to adhering to them so they can best help students.

    There is variation between schools on the level of specificity when establishing and discussing investigation and response procedures. Regardless of the level of detail your school chooses to establish or disclose, your school must follow your documented protocols. To ensure this happens, we recommend that you form a specific committee, possibly called a response team, that is responsible for investigating and responding to reports of sexual misconduct and abuse. Members of this team should be trained and familiar with the protocols so that they are ready to respond promptly and consistently. For more specifics on the roles and compositions of response teams, see Learning Courage’s page on “School and Board Leadership.”

    1. Before Investigating
    1. Investigations
    1. Disciplinary Process
    1. After the Disciplinary Process

    Different Types of Investigations and Considerations

    Depending on the type of report, your school will need to have an investigation and response protocol. Consider the following:

    Common Steps Toward Healing

    Keeping your school and your students safe is a critical aspect of running a school. In the case of sexual misconduct and abuse, we also know that caring for those involved in any alleged misconduct leads to the best outcomes for all parties. 

    Using survivor-centered practices outlined here typically reduce the amount of time required to process incidents, thereby reducing the costs of expensive outside professionals and often reducing or eliminating payments to survivors.  Because when survivors are treated with dignity, when their suffering is validated, and when they observe transparency and a desire to help them heal, they are much less likely to exert control in other ways such as seeking legal and financial retribution.

    It is important to note that there are 5 elements necessary for a survivor-centered approach to healing.  When those who have been harmed observe and experience these, they can heal more effectively.  They are as follows:

    Once an investigation has been carried out and the findings of that investigation have been shared with the community, the very difficult task of learning and healing from the findings begins. Your school has a responsibility both to the community and the survivors of historic misconduct and abuse.

    Every survivor of sexual abuse is different, and it would be nearly impossible to develop a single blanket approach that would meet the needs of every survivor. However, there are five main things every survivor needs in order to start healing:

    1. Apology: A sincere apology should be issued on behalf of your school to the survivor.
    2. Validation: Your school, as an institution, should validate the experience of the survivor. The validation should be included both in the apology to the survivor and in the publishing of the findings of the investigation, if it is published. (See “Who will communicate the findings of the Committee" above.)
    3. Recognition of Harm: In addition to validating the account of the survivor, your school should explicitly acknowledge the harm the survivor suffered as a result of the misconduct or abuse.
    4. Demonstrated willingness to support healing: Consider what your school is able to provide.  The most obvious action to offer is reimbursement for therapy.  We recognize that your school may have to establish some limitations for those wanting to accept therapeutic reimbursement.  It’s important to recognize that any restriction will be viewed by survivors with skepticism and be seen as the school not being willing to take full responsibility for the harm caused. So, the fewer restrictions, the better. Another way to support survivor healing is to provide a third-party that can help the survivor locate an appropriate therapist. Also, if both the survivor wishes and the perpetrator is willing to apologize and accept responsibility for their past actions, a Restorative Justice approach may be implemented.
    5. Demonstrated commitment to prevent future harm: After a survivor comes forward, they need to know that they were heard and taken seriously. Your school can do this by learning from survivors’ experiences and putting measures in place to help prevent similar incidents of sexual misconduct and abuse from happening in the future. Make plans with specific goals and timelines. Following through with your plans and informing the survivor about these plans to reduce harm for others is an important step in demonstrating your commitment to reducing future harm.  It also helps rebuild trust between the survivor and your school.

    These five things should be put into action by your school regardless of whether the individual perpetrator is willing to apologize and accept responsibility for their actions. It is also important to know that healing is a process and it is likely that survivors might need or want different things depending on their stage of healing. For more information, see Learning Courage’s “Commitment to Student Safety and Well-being.” For specific ways your school can support survivors, see “Supportive Services for Alumni” on Learning Courage’s “Supportive Services” page.