A Crisis Is Coming - Is Your Board on Board?

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

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

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

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

To read the full article, click here.

School and Board Leadership

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

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

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

Leadership Alignment

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

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

Governance Structure

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

Responding to Sexual Misconduct and Abuse: Response Team/Taskforce

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reducing Sexual Misconduct and Abuse:

Safety Committee/Health and Wellness Committee

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

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

Communication

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

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

Risk Assessment

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

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

Environmental Scan

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

Physical Space

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

Policies and Procedures

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

School Culture and Climate

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

Administrative / Committee Structure

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

Current Student Misconduct and Abuse

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

Adult Misconduct and Abuse

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

Historic Misconduct and Abuse

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

Training

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

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

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

Communications

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

Board of Trustees

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

Legal

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

Insurance

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

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

The Board's Role in a Sexual Misconduct Investigation

By Lisa Donohue, Board President, Milton Academy

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

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

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

CRITICAL BOARD WORK 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LEADING THE WAY 

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

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

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

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.  

Communications Guidelines

Reports of sexual misconduct and abuse require rapid response, discretion, strong leadership, compassion, and a clear understanding of the process that has been outlined in the Employee Handbook and other policy documents. By definition, these incidents are highly charged, complex events that require those involved in the response to be compassionate while decisive in their actions, knowing what needs to be done, who needs to be involved, and what needs to be communicated.

Strong communication requires advance planning and inclusion of communications professionals throughout the process. Planning allows you to move forward with confidence, clarity, and speed, all of which are essential in building trust and transparency within your community. In this plan, your school should consider what, when, and how you will communicate with parents/guardians/families, alumni, the Board, students, and faculty and staff when reports are made. While there should be consistent messaging underpinning these communications, each audience may require special consideration.  These communications plans can also provide an opportunity for your school to demonstrate its commitment to student safety and well-being.  

Steps Schools Should Follow

The following are practices we believe all schools should follow as you plan and prepare for responding to reports of current and historic sexual misconduct and abuse: 

Different Types of Communication

When creating communications plans, you have to consider the different types of sexual misconduct or abuse situations and the implications of each. 

Sharing information within your school community reduces confusion and demonstrates respect and care. Conversely, failing to inform your community before news sources cover it suggests a lack of leadership and passive involvement in the process and can result in misinformation, speculation, and a lack of trust. It is also important to prepare for information to be shared among students who presume their communications on social media will remain private – unfortunately, it is more likely that it could become public.  

Have a Plan to Address Current Misconduct

Throughout your school’s communications, it is important to maintain compassion and sincerity towards survivors as well as articulate your school’s commitment to student safety and well-being. Your school should proactively create and periodically review/update your school’s communications plan on how to respond to reports or allegations of sexual misconduct or abuse. Without a plan in place, it is impossible to make good decisions about how to communicate about the incident: you will be too focused on other details.  Working an existing plan allows you to have a roadmap for what information you need to communicate, when and how frequently you will communicate, which communications channels you will use, and to which groups. It prevents second-guessing and cuts through the chaos and stress, which is frequently part of these incidents. There will not be sufficient time to create a communications plan at the moment of a crisis.  Events will be moving too quickly.  Attempting to do so, essentially ensures your school will commit unintentional institutional harm to the survivor and/or your school community that will also damage the leadership and school’s reputation.

The communications plan should also include a media strategy in the event that the media becomes involved. At a minimum, your school should identify an external communications professional that you plan to call on, as needed. A Response Team, composed of the spokesperson, legal counsel, and school leadership can determine what, when, and how the information will be shared with the media. There should be a point person and a backup for media inquiries. The individuals comprising the Response Team should be permanent employees of the school and are supported by any external communications professional involved. Do not share anything beyond the official correspondence that has been shared with the community. All other members of the community should be informed to direct any media inquiries to those designated to respond.  This will ensure consistency in the messaging and reduce confusion in how the issue is covered. Your team should consider the impact that your school’s statements will have on all who are directly involved, particularly the survivor, and your school community to avoid committing unintentional harm.

In cases of student-on-student misconduct or abuse, your school must consider confidentiality and privacy rights since most students are minors. Communications should be kept internal throughout the investigation and findings proc. Your school should decide how and when they plan to communicate with the reporting party, the responding party, and their respective families/guardians. However, it is important to be prepared for the possibility that those internal communications may be shared with a wider audience.

In the cases of employee-on-student abuse, we recommend that your communications remain internal throughout the investigations. If there is a specific finding of abuse, your response team needs to decide the timing and amount of detail to communicate with your school community. If the situation necessitates placing the employee on leave during the investigation and review process, it is important to maintain the privacy and confidentiality of all involved.  

Have a Plan for Addressing Historic Misconduct

Your school should be prepared, even before any reports of historic abuse, with a communications plan and communications team. Your plan should include identifying which Board members, administrators, and legal counsel will need to be informed about reports of historic abuse. Your communications plan should also include the appropriate steps for communicating with the survivor, the responding party (whether at your institution or not), the Board, the current school community, alumni, and the media. Your response team should include at least one individual who understands the nature of sexual trauma on those who have been harmed.

Information on how to report historic abuse should be included, at a minimum, on your school’s website and in both the student and employee handbooks. Reports of historic abuse may also prompt media interest. Having a media strategy in place allows your school to respond decisively and consistently if the media picks up the story.

Institutions that have had cases of historic abuse may reach out to the wider school community with an initial “Letter to the Community.” This letter is primarily intended to inform and invite alumni to share information about incidents of historic abuse within the school. When sending out these letters, it is important to make an effort to include everyone who has ever attended the school, even those who did not graduate or those who are on a “no contact” list. You should also make this letter available on the school website and consider providing the appropriate context for other members of the community, including current students, families, faculty, and staff. 

When sending an initial “Letter to the Community,” we recommend that you include the following elements in your communications:

Throughout these communications, it is important for your school to demonstrate a commitment to the safety of your students and the healing of survivors. This initial letter should include information on where community members can direct information, such as the contact information of a third-party investigator, as well as whomever the school determines is the on-campus person handling these initial contacts. It also may invite members of the community to share their concerns or questions with a member of your school community, such as a Head of School or Assistant Head of School. 

If there have been any allegations of historic abuse, your school should conduct an investigation led by an independent party not affiliated with the school.  The school community needs to be informed of the investigation. In most cases, everyone in the school community needs to be made aware that there is an investigation in process. When and how you do this might vary based on what the allegations are and whether any parties involved are still at the school.

The following details should be shared with the community:

  1. Contact information for the investigator and their qualifications.
  2. Confidentiality and Privacy Disclosures Will the identities of anyone contacting the investigator be revealed? Complete confidentiality is impossible to promise because legal proceedings may force you to disclose material from the investigation. But the investigation and report can be structured to maximize the privacy of those who participate in the investigation.
  3. Connection to the School Is this an independent investigation or will it be directed by the school? Independent investigations are standard practice and their findings will have greater credibility. They may also yield the most comprehensive findings and will maximize the healing of anyone previously victimized. We only recommend independent investigations.  Without independence for the investigators, the findings from any work results will not build trust in the community. 
  4. Commitment to transparency  This may feel like the most risk and the biggest promise. While the privacy of the individuals must be protected to the greatest extent possible, sharing the full extent of the findings demonstrates integrity and reinforces your commitment to caring for anyone harmed in the past and learning from past mistakes.  A lack of transparency can lead to rumors or incorrect information being disseminated that can be worse for the school than any potential consequences of transparency.

While investigating reports of historic abuse, we recommend that your school provide updates or follow-ups to the community in the form of a “Letter to the Community,” as necessary. The frequency of communications and level of detail may vary according to the specifics of the investigation and where your school is in the process. Providing updates to the community demonstrates your school's commitment to investigating reports of historic abuse and facilitates transparency in the investigation process. These communications may also provide information on how the school plans to support survivors as well as current students.  

What to Include in Updates to Community

When updating the community about the investigations and findings of a historic abuse allegation, we recommend that your letters include the following elements in your communications:

Another consideration is how you choose to communicate about or celebrate faculty members’ achievements or recognize their death when they have allegations against them. There may be situations where there was insufficient evidence against an employee or an allegation could not be corroborated. However, if there have been findings against a faculty or staff member, that person should not be celebrated or recognized in any way. In cases where there have been unproven allegations against faculty, staff, or Board members, be mindful of how the school community may react when celebrating their service or their life. 

There are numerous decisions that need to be made when there are allegations of historic abuse. Making these decisions can be difficult but thinking through these details before you need to act is essential. Putting a plan into action will ensure you are able to react quickly, which demonstrates leadership, minimizes individual and collective trauma and can help facilitate healing within your community.

Having an established communication plan and corresponding guidelines is critical for a school when dealing with both positive and negative institutional news. The consequences of not having a clear plan in cases of challenging situations of misconduct and abuse are significant and avoidable. Therefore, we recommend you get ahead of the curve by having communication guidelines outlined as best as possible and follow them in consultation with your communication team. 

Historic Misconduct and Abuse

As a school leader, you may believe that the need to confront historic misconduct and abuse does not apply to your institution. At Learning Courage, we argue that the responsibility to investigate historic misconduct and abuse falls upon all schools - even if you believe that your school does not have a problem with historic misconduct and abuse. The unfortunate reality is that, if your institution has been around for any substantial period of time, it is highly likely that there is some degree of painful history of misconduct and abuse within your community. Some schools may be more affected by this issue than others, but no school is immune from these issues. The question is: how will your school address that history? 

We acknowledge that investigating historic misconduct and abuse is a scary and overwhelming task. However, at Learning Courage, we believe the only way to give your community a chance to become a safer place for everyone and heal is to confront the past, draw lessons from it, and use the information to prevent and reduce future harm. This means your school must take steps to investigate and address historic misconduct and abuse. We also acknowledge the difficult obstacles you may face as a leader to align other leaders in your school and organize a sincere and effective approach to this task. There are many important decisions to make throughout this process. We believe that one of the first ones - particularly in the case of historic abuse - is how transparent you plan to be with the investigation findings. But we believe it is your institution’s responsibility to all community members - past, present, and future - to confront and learn from the past. This is true of sexual misconduct and abuse, and also for other issues. The process may be painful and uncomfortable, but your school will become a better and stronger institution because of it. And it is easier to move on when the full findings are shared.

This section is designed to provide what we believe to be the most effective approach to create a plan for responding to reports and findings of historic misconduct and abuse. Please consult your legal counsel to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.

Reluctance to Confront Historic Misconduct and Abuse

We recognize the fear behind deciding to investigate claims of historic misconduct and abuse within your community. This fear is understandable; opening up your school to reports from alums who have been harmed feels risky; recognizing the possibility that reports and findings could become public has reputational consequences; launching investigations into historic misconduct and abuse comes with many unknowns that make it difficult to plan. Doing this work well requires an open mind and willingness to confront whatever history you find. There are also real costs and significant time requirements related to this work.  However, all the evidence we have clearly proves that a failure to inquire about and investigate reports of abuse is far more costly than approaching this work with a commitment to understanding and learning from the past while caring for those who have been harmed. Confronting historic misconduct and abuse is not only the right thing to do for the survivors and victims but is ultimately the best action for your institution.  Addressing these claims proactively and with appropriate transparency will be more beneficial to the school’s reputation in the long term. 

When the approach is focused on understanding history and supporting both survivors and the community instead of solely protecting the institution, this becomes a community effort that both requires processing deeply upsetting information and identifying a path forward. 

Leadership Alignment

To begin confronting historic misconduct and abuse at your institution, the Head of School and Board members must be aligned in how to approach this effort. The Head should lead the work and set the tone for approaching it with an earnest desire to understand what history exists on this issue and to support anyone who was harmed in the process. Everyone must be convinced that historic misconduct and abuse is a worthy and pressing issue to address. There should be agreement about the general approach the school will take regarding this issue, and specific committees should be formed to make critical decisions and oversee the investigation and response. 

The Board President/Executive Committee must support the Head for the outcome to have the most positive results. If the Board/Executive Committee does not support the Head, the outcome will likely include deeper trauma and a protracted process with significantly more cost for professional fees and payments to survivors. Consider also whether the Board Chair is the right person from the Executive Committee to participate in the ongoing work of the Committee responsible for oversight of any incident.  There may be a better fit than the Chair, whether for logistical reasons or due to experience or other factors. We also recommend that anyone involved in addressing and responding to incidents receive training to be best equipped to use a survivor-centric, trauma-informed response. 

It all begins with leadership alignment. Our observation is that when schools follow the approach we describe in this section, the school community comes together. For more information regarding these topics, see the Governance Structure and Leadership Alignment sections on Learning Courage’s “School and Board Leadership” page.

Equating Lack of Reports to Lack of Historic Misconduct and Abuse

It is tempting but ill-advised to assume that your school does not have a history of sexual misconduct and abuse solely because no alumni have come forward with reports. Survivors are unlikely to disclose their experiences of abuse unless there is something that compels them. This could be an external event (such as the #MeToo movement or a peer school’s disclosure) that makes the experience intolerable to keep quiet, or it could be an internal event (such as celebrating the retirement or death of a teacher who caused harm or sending out a letter to the community).

If your school has not previously created a safe space for survivors of misconduct and abuse to come forward with their experiences, then it is unlikely you will have heard from survivors. It may even be the case that your school has sent out a community letter to alumni in the past asking for reports of historic misconduct and abuse, but your school heard nothing back. In this case, it is worth examining the letter to ensure that it included the elements we recommend (see “Steps Towards Creating a Safe Environment for Survivors to Report” below). It is important to recognize that your school’s efforts to uncover historic misconduct and abuse may not have been written in a way that signals safety for survivors.

Steps Toward Creating a Safe Environment for Survivors to Report

Whether the misconduct and abuse took place recently or many years ago, it is very scary for a survivor to come forward with a report. Therefore, it is critical that you acknowledge and remember this when reaching out to former students and asking for reports of historic misconduct and abuse. All communication should convey empathy, humility, and integrity. In order for alumni to feel secure coming forward, they must be convinced that your school is genuinely and deeply interested in learning about their experiences. Survivors most likely have a significant lack of trust toward your school, especially if they experienced sexual misconduct that was never uncovered or was reported but they felt was unresolved or mismanaged by your school.

If your school has not previously reached out to alumni, we recommend that you send a “Letter to the Community” inquiring about past experiences of sexual misconduct and abuse. If your school has previously reached out to alumni, we do not recommend that your school send out another “Letter to the Community” because you have already established some communication regarding this issue. We encourage you to find ways to signal a genuine interest in caring for the community - both past and present. Survivors will be ready to come forward with their experiences at different times. One of the most important factors that affect their willingness to share is the level of trust they feel that you will respond in ways that will support their healing.

It is important to be consistent in reinforcing your desire to hear from survivors whenever they feel ready, so survivors know that the door is always open for them to come forward. For more specific information on how to productively reach out to alumni and encourage reports of historic misconduct and abuse, see the section about Addressing Historic Abuse on Learning Courage’s “Communications Guidelines” page. 

When sending out the communication, make sure it is distributed to all former students and employees of the institution. This means including students who did not graduate. In some cases, those who did not graduate may have other reasons for leaving that can be traced to abuse. For example, a student may have been dismissed because they were acting out, which could have been a sign or symptom of the misconduct and abuse they suffered. For a description of common symptoms of abuse, see Learning Courage’s “Signs and Symptoms” page. 

Unprompted Reports

Every survivor is different and may be ready to come forward with their experience at different times. It is possible that your school will receive reports from former students without any prompting from a “Letter to the Community” or other communication. Often when schools receive unprompted reports, they come as a surprise. Without an existing plan, the result is a hastily put-together response that is not ideal for the survivor, the community, or the institution itself. To avoid this, we recommend that your school have a protocol in place for how to deal with unprompted reports of historic misconduct and abuse. This will ensure your school will not have to start by figuring out how to respond if and when unprompted reports are received, which will reduce the risk of your school unintentionally causing more harm and damage.

Keeping Records

Whether reports of historic misconduct or abuse your school receives are prompted or unprompted, your school should always be ready to investigate the allegations. One way your school can prepare itself for reports is to keep thorough records. We recommend that your school keep personnel files of all former employees so that information is available to you in case of reports. We encourage you to keep these records regardless of the statute of limitation laws in your state. In addition, we recommend that you keep a record of past allegations, whether there are findings or not, and make these records available to the Head of School and at least one other leader at your school within the administration or the Board, as appropriate. An incoming Head of School and/or Board Chair should have full awareness of these past issues as they may be relevant to future situations. No one likes to be surprised, especially when they are new to a school.  If this record does not exist, then part of the process of examining historic abuse should be to review personnel files of current and past employees.

The information will be valuable to an investigation regardless of whether the perpetrator can be prosecuted. Also, it is possible that these laws will not apply in the coming years. For example, California abolished its statute of limitations for most sex crimes in 2016. Additionally, we recommend that your school keep a log of the insurance that your school had throughout its history because oftentimes the insurance your school had at the time of the misconduct or abuse reported will be relevant in the investigation. Make sure to consult your school’s current insurance company regarding this topic.

Finding an Investigator

There are different ways to carry out investigations into historic misconduct and abuse. At Learning Courage, we believe that every investigation must be independent and the information from the work should be shared to the greatest degree possible while protecting the privacy of those who were harmed, as appropriate. Please consult your legal counsel to obtain advice with respect to any particular legal matter.

1.  Independent: In order to ensure trust - especially for those not involved in the process such as alumni and students - an investigation should be carried out by an external third party with significant experience investigating sexual misconduct and abuse and who uses a survivor-centric, trauma-informed and resiliency-based lens. The investigating party will be hired and paid by your school’s leadership and/or board, but the investigation itself must be independent. This means that the investigators should have complete autonomy, have access to all files and historical documents, and must not be guided or influenced in any way by anyone during the investigation. It is best for your school to highlight these points in all communication about the investigation so your entire community knows how the relationship between your school and the investigating party is structured.

2.      Experienced: Conducting an investigation within your school community is best done by someone with a deep understanding of the law and the nature of trauma and its impact on memory. It is also ideally done by someone who has significant previous experience doing this work with independent schools. These investigations require a different approach than is used in, for example, corporate investigations. For more information, refer to our resources section on Investigators.  

 3.      Transparent: Your school should plan on releasing a full report, or at least a detailed summary, of the investigation. We recognize that privacy and confidentiality must be considered when carrying out investigations, so it is best for the report to maintain the confidentiality of individuals. Upon hiring an investigator, your school should inform them of your intention of sharing the findings. This ensures the investigator knows how to protect the personal information of all participants in the final report.

Time Frame

Investigations can be expensive and time-consuming. There are many variables that impact the time frame of investigation. Such variables include, but are not limited to, the number of people who originally came forward with reports, the number of people those reports involve, and how difficult it is to corroborate the allegations made in the reports. Often, more people will come forward with reports while an investigation is going on because they feel more comfortable stepping forward knowing that other people already have. If more reports are received during the course of an investigation, this will likely increase the time frame of the process. Most investigations are completed within 6-12 months. However, it is important to remember that the time truly depends on your school’s unique situation. It is also common to receive additional survivor reports after the investigation findings are shared. Patience is required for all those involved while the investigators conduct their work.

 Leadership Changes

Due to the length of time for investigations, there is a possibility that there may be a change in leadership at your school during this process. This could be a transfer to a new Head of School or a change within the Board. This change could be a result of many factors, none of which might be due to the investigation itself. Your school must be prepared to handle the transition smoothly for all involved parties. It will be vital that your school’s approach continues to be survivor-centric. As mentioned above, record-keeping practices are extremely important and become more so when there is a change in leadership. Communications should be clear to all appropriate parties that your school’s commitment to the investigation process will not falter due to this transition.

Expense

There are various expenses that need to be considered when calculating the total cost of conducting an investigation and responding to the findings. Typically, the longer the investigation lasts, the more the investigation costs. Unfortunately, there is no precise way to predict how long your school’s investigation into historic misconduct and abuse may last (see “Time Frame” section above). Another factor that determines the cost is outside advisors. Legal counsel and communications specialists are the two main advisors that must be included when conducting an investigation. Therapeutic counsel, from a trauma perspective, is also important to have available, although your school may already have someone able to provide this resource on staff.

In some cases, a portion of the cost of these outside advisors is covered in part through your school’s general liability or umbrella insurance policy. Check with your insurance provider to see what is available with your existing policy.

What we know is that acknowledgment and apology are less expensive than denial.  We have no further to look than the medical profession to highlight this.  Recently, there has been a dramatic change in the practice of responding to malpractice within the medical profession. Until very recently, it was standard practice for doctors to address all medical mistakes by referring patients to their insurance carrier. This caused medical malpractice claims to increase dramatically in the last decades of the 20th century. However, when doctors began instead to apologize to patients for their errors, fewer patients felt they needed to file lawsuits against their doctors. This reduced costs for insurance providers and decreased insurance premiums for doctors.     

Referred to as full disclosure, it requires health care providers to be open and transparent when they make mistakes. The University of Michigan Health System, for example, was one of the first hospitals to experiment with full disclosure. When they started this practice in August 2001, they had 262 claims and lawsuits. Disclosure reduced existing claims and lawsuits to 83 by August 2007. That’s a 68% reduction in incidents in just 6 years.  Also, out of 37 cases where the hospital admitted fault and apologized, only 1 patient filed suit. [Doctors Say "I'm Sorry' Before 'See You in Court', 2008]

Other positive outcomes from similar studies confirm the positive impact from this shift towards disclosure and apology and away from deny and deflect, including:

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the results are similar when this approach is applied in schools. We believe this approach can be applied to your school’s practices regarding addressing historic misconduct and abuse. It may not be necessary to spend a large amount of financial resources that your school does not have in order to support survivors. As experienced in healthcare, we suggest the most cost-effective, meaningful, and impactful approach your school can take is to apologize; this will also make a huge positive impact on the healing journey of a survivor.

Communications

Conducting an investigation into your school’s history of abuse is very unsettling for all members of your community. Unless an unprompted report is made to your school, communication to your community starts when the decision to begin an investigation is made and a “Letter to the Community” inquiring into past sexual misconduct and abuse is sent out to alumni and former students. It is important to continue to communicate with your community throughout the process. Establishing and keeping up with a flow of communications regarding the investigation will help to build and maintain a trusting relationship between your school and the community.

We recognize that there is very limited information that can be shared during an independent investigation. However, those involved in the process and interested in the outcome will take some comfort in periodic updates about where the process is. Work with the investigator to determine what information is appropriate to communicate. We recommend sending out investigation updates to those who participate in the investigation every three months if feasible. If your school is working with a communications professional, we also recommend you seek their counsel for advice on the frequency and content of communications. Decisions about how to communicate and what to communicate regarding historic sexual misconduct and abuse are complex and important and ideally are sorted out before an investigation occurs. It is vital that the communication also accounts for the trauma, survivor-lens perspective when appropriate. For more information on updating your school community, see “Addressing Historic Abuse” in Learning Courage’s “Communications Guidelines” page.

Considerations:

Different audiences:

How to Interact with Survivors During an Investigation

The time during an investigation is especially challenging for survivors. Commonly, trust has been broken with your institution for the survivor, whose experience is based on how your school may have initially responded to or enabled the abuse. Survivors who choose to disclose their experiences of historic abuse to your school will be looking for clues that they can trust your school today. For this reason, it's important to have a separate communication plan for those who have disclosed abuse. We encourage your school to view all interactions and communications with individuals who disclosed reports as an opportunity to rebuild trust or reinforce that they can trust your school. Our recommended best practices regarding communications with survivors are outlined in the sections below.

Information Privileges

Different audiences should have different privileges regarding when they receive information found in the investigation. With exception of the survivors and others who participate in the investigation, the information you provide to different audiences may not be different, but the timing of when each audience receives that information should be. The Board should be notified first, then employees. Survivors and other persons especially interested in the findings of the investigation should also be alerted before the broader community. Students, their families, and alums generally should be notified at the same time. The time between the notification of employees and students could be as little as 12 hours. What matters is that employees, as senior members of your school’s community, are given some time and guidance to prepare both how they personally will respond to the findings and how they will help support students and their families.

Respecting the Wishes of Survivors

Survivors and those who participate in the investigation should be asked whether they would like to be kept informed of the status of the investigation and findings. Some survivors may want as much information as you can provide. Other survivors may not want any additional information, preferring instead to distance themselves from a painful chapter of their lives. It is important to ask and honor the wishes of survivors. If a survivor wishes, it may be appropriate to update them more frequently on the status and findings of the investigation than the broader community. It is also possible that the survivors might change their minds as time goes on and they process more of their own feelings, reactions, and needs. Healing is a process, and experience shows us that what survivors want over time can, and often does, change. It is useful for you to be aware of this important element of trauma recovery and healing.

Providing a 3rd Party Survivor Liaison

Because of the past trauma they may have suffered, it is possible that survivors of sexual misconduct and abuse do not trust your school enough to share their experiences directly with your school. This is why it may be helpful to provide an independent party, who uses a survivor-centric, trauma-informed, and resiliency-based lens, that can act as a survivor liaison. A survivor may be more likely to come forward with their experience if this option is provided to them.

Handling Investigation Findings

As stated above, your school should be as transparent as possible regarding investigations and their findings. How information is conveyed to your community matters. No school wants to be in reaction mode to something as significant as sexual misconduct and abuse, which is why it is critical that the administration and the Board are aligned in how to respond to and communicate investigation findings. It is also important that the approach to communication is survivor-centric and trauma-informed, so there should be a person trained in sexual misconduct and abuse who is a member of the committee, or who is consulting, determining communication. As previously stated, we recommend that a communications professional is involved throughout the process, beginning as early as possible.  However, if your institution does not already have communication experts on staff, we recommend that you include outside communications expertise when you receive the investigation findings and before sharing any details. 

As with the periodic updates, you must share the investigation findings with all employees, current families, and alumni - the Board being notified first, then employees, and others thereafter. It is common for schools to receive more reports after the investigation findings are published.  For this reason, it is important to affirm your desire to hear disclosures that have not yet been shared. The community letter should leave the door open to the possibility of more reports being submitted and should state where survivors can submit their additional reports regarding the investigation. For more information regarding communications, see Learning Courage’s “Communications Guidelines” page.

Common Steps Toward Healing

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.

Supporting Survivors

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. (See “Handling Investigation Findings” 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. (See “Implementing Restorative Justice when Addressing Historic Misconduct and Abuse” below.) 
  5. Demonstrated commitment to preventing 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. 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.

Restorative Justice when Addressing Historic Misconduct and Abuse

If the survivor wishes and the individual perpetrator of historic misconduct or abuse is willing to apologize and accept responsibility for their actions, then a Restorative Justice approach may be offered as a way to help the survivor heal. If both the survivor and the perpetrator are willing, your school should offer to act as the facilitating and mediating party. This may be another case where it may be helpful for your school to provide a trained third party to act as the facilitator, because the survivor may not entirely trust your school to implement this approach and it takes a knowledgeable, trained person to handle this with delicacy and diplomacy.  Note that this must be implemented by individuals who are trained and qualified in Restorative Justice practices. This could be an employee or someone hired from outside the community. For a complete description of Restorative Justice and our recommendations on how to utilize the approach in your school, see Learning Courage’s “Restorative Justice” page.

Arbitration and Legal Services for Survivors

Generally, your school does not have a responsibility to provide arbitration and legal services to survivors of historic misconduct and abuse. In many cases, this service is 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. Also, your school may not have the resources to commit to funding legal services for survivors. It should be noted that some schools have considered offering legal services in the past, so it is an option if your institution has the will and means. However, your school does not have an obligation to do so.

Committed Response to Safety

The findings of an investigation may uncover some painful truths about your institution's past. It is extremely difficult to lead a community through this time. Although this work is tough, you have the opportunity to lead the way to a safer school and a stronger community.

It is possible for reports to be made about employees who are still working at your school. If there is a report about a current employee, the employee must be immediately removed from campus pending further investigation and be on leave during the investigation. We acknowledge that this issue can be extremely complex, and it is also important to follow established policies and procedures if applicable. Your school may have to consider:

It is helpful to consider these scenarios and include details regarding how your school will address reports about current employees within policies such as your code of conduct or anti-harassment and discrimination policy. These policies should be articulated in your employee handbook.

If an investigation yields findings of abuse, there will be many things you, as a school leader, will have to consider. The most pressing issue will be handling the perpetrator. If the perpetrator is still employed at your school, they should be removed immediately after consultation with legal counsel. If the perpetrator has worked at other schools, you should also contact them and inform them. Your school may also be faced with having to determine whether any formal recognition of the perpetrator within the school should be removed. This includes, but is not limited to, renaming buildings, taking down awards or photographs, and removing memorials. We acknowledge that these steps can be complex and difficult, especially when the perpetrator is beloved by the community. We encourage your school to seek outside counsel and consult your Learning Courage member representative regarding these decisions. 

Communication to your community is always critical when removing an employee.  Waiting to release the news to the community will only allow rumors to spread and run rampant. Your school can get ahead of this by alerting the community to the removal within 24 hours. As with other forms of communication regarding the investigation, sequencing who finds out in the community when is important. For example, the Board should be alerted first (if they are not already informed), then employees and survivors, and students and their families last. It is important that the timing and tone of this communication be the same no matter who the perpetrator is. The perpetrator may have been a “beloved” person, and there will likely be strong emotions surrounding the person leaving. Removing a perpetrator can also be extremely complicated to navigate. For example, your school may have to consider if the perpetrator’s spouse also works at your school and/or if the perpetrator’s children currently attend your school. These are difficult considerations, and we encourage you to seek outside legal counsel and consult your Learning Courage member representative when making these decisions. Above all, it is critical for your school to remain survivor-centric and trauma-informed when dealing with the perpetrator. Communicating with the community upon the removal of a perpetrator is another area where it is critical to have a communication expert for counsel. Even though it is important for the communication to be quick, it should not be rushed. This communication must delicately address the situation while providing certainty and finality.

If the perpetrator is no longer working at your school and is employed at another school, your school has a responsibility to contact that school and inform them of your findings. Your school should also contact every other institution where the perpetrator worked.

Do Not Solely Focus on Your Legal Obligations

Depending on your state’s statutes of limitations, it may not be possible to prosecute the perpetrator in a court of law. This does not impact any of the actions mentioned in the previous paragraph that your school should take. You must not view the issue of historic misconduct and abuse solely through a legal lens. In fact, we at Learning Courage implore you not to. While being aware of the legal lens is important, your school should focus on your responsibility to the survivor, your current students, and the wider community.

A Note on Post-Investigation Communication

It is important to continue updating the community if the investigation continues, including if a perpetrator goes to trial or if more reports are submitted after publication of the findings. It is also important to continue updating the community on how your school is processing the investigation findings and what steps your institution is taking to build a safer community. This is where the work of a Safety Committee, sometimes called the Health and Wellness Committee, begins. It is important to keep in mind that any further communication about abuse can provoke a variety of responses from survivors and the larger community, so sensitivity in language and messaging is still critical. Your school will benefit by continuing to consult communication experts regarding post-investigation communication. For the description of a safety committee, see “Reducing Sexual Misconduct and Abuse: Safety Committee/Health and Wellness Committee” in Learning Courage’s “School and Board Leadership” page.

Help the Community Heal

Processing the findings of historic abuse is challenging for everyone in the community.  You will find that there is a wide variety of reactions people will have.  Here are just a few:

You will have to deal with all of these reactions and more.  The easiest ones are the compliments, which should be acknowledged with humility and with a reiteration of the school’s commitment to the safety of all students.  Aside from conversations with survivors, the more challenging ones come from those who don’t trust that the process uncovered all that people were willing to share and from those who want you to stop talking about past incidents.  The first is based on a lack of trust. The second is often based on fear of diminished reputation for both the institution and, by extension, them - not to mention concerns about employee and student distraction. While these concerns are all valid to some degree, the critical thing to remember is that you must remain focused on supporting survivors and fortifying the school against future harm. Not all will agree with your approach, but it is difficult to fault leadership for taking the moral high ground. 

At Learning Courage, we recognize that the task of addressing historic misconduct and abuse within your school’s community can be overwhelming. There is a possibility that launching an investigation will uncover painful stories about your institution’s past. It will also require a lot of time and effort from you and the rest of your school’s leadership. We also recognize that the potential financial expense of this process is no small load for your school to take on. Even considering all these factors, we believe that confronting your institution’s past, however painful, is the only way for your school to grow and become a safer place for your students and employees. It is possible that former students and employees were hurt at your school. If you do not learn how and why they were hurt, it is possible that more of your students and employees will be hurt in the same way in the future - which would be tragic. Confronting the past will also help to heal wounds and repair important relationships with former students who may feel disenfranchised by your school, and rebuilding trust with your school’s alumni can have a direct effect on applications, enrollment, annual giving, capital campaigns, and endowment. We hope that reading our thoughts and suggestions regarding historic misconduct and abuse has inspired you to lead the way in making your school a safer community.