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. 


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. 


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

Arbitration/Legal Services 

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

Supportive Services for Employees

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

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

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

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

Restorative Justice

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

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

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

How does restorative justice work?

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

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

Cheryl Graves-Community Justice for Youth Institute

How restorative justice has been used for truth and reconciliation

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

Restorative Justice Results in Schools

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

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

Restorative Justice and Title IX

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

How can restorative justice be implemented in classrooms?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can your school begin implementing restorative justice practices?

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

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

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

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

Investigations and Responding Practices

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

Investigation and Response Protocols

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

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

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

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

Different Types of Investigations and Considerations

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

Common Steps Toward Healing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

Crisis Response Guide

You have to be prepared to act quickly and thoughtfully when you receive a report of sexual misconduct or abuse. Taking immediate action requires that you have a plan in place that includes an emergency response protocol. Your plan should identify specific members of the crisis team that convenes after an incident has been reported. Your crisis team should include an individual with a mental health background and a specific understanding of sexual trauma. If that is not possible, a mental health professional should be involved in creating the plan and training those involved in the response. Your plan should be documented and revisited on an annual basis to ensure that they remain relevant and that your team is familiar with the protocols and how to execute them. 

The crisis plan should include training for all individuals involved with the reporting and responding parties to ensure that the committee understands the importance of using a trauma-informed and survivor-centered approach. Operating with these practices can reduce unintentional harm and prevent re-traumatizing the reporting party, which both impacts how they heal over the long-term and affects the safety and reporting climate and culture at your school.

The following details for process and protocols should be included in your emergency response guide:

Emergency Medical Attention

When there has been a report of sexual misconduct or abuse, individuals may require medical attention. It’s critical to assess the well-being of the student(s) involved and determine whether immediate medical attention is needed. 

Your school should be prepared with a plan on how it will provide medical care to the responding and reporting parties. This includes identifying the following:

As previously mentioned, the individual responsible for accompanying a student needing medical attention must have trauma-informed training to avoid unintentional harm or retraumatizing the reporting party. 

Maintaining the privacy of the individuals involved is essential, both because they are typically minors and because of health care legal requirements (HIPPA laws).  

Emotional Support Services

In addition to the emergency medical services, your school should be prepared to provide immediate emotional support for the reporting party, responding party, and other student(s) involved. Note that each time the reporting party has to disclose details of their abuse can deepen their trauma.  The ideal scenario is that the reporting party only has to recount their experience once.  While this isn’t always practical, especially if law enforcement is involved or there is an investigation, be mindful of how your process can minimize the number of disclosures the reporting party must make.  The individuals responsible for providing emergency emotional support must be trained to reduce the likelihood of re-traumatizing the reporting party. 

Ideally, this emotional support provider is an employee of your school. If that's not the case, they must be well informed about your school's policies, procedures, legal requirements, and investigation process and needs to ensure that these protocols are followed.  Providing this help supports the reporting party while also protecting the institution. 

In addition to ensuring that mental health care is offered to the reporting party, the support person may, with appropriate permission from the student, be able to provide important context during the investigation. This information can be critical for the committee as they review and interpret the fact patterns and consider the findings. See Learning Courage’s section on “Supportive Services” for more information on how to support students. 

Beyond initial emotional support services, your school should identify and ensure access is available for ongoing therapeutic and other options to care for reporting and responding parties. 

For those who may not feel comfortable seeking emotional support within the school's therapeutic directly to school personnel, you should include information on outside emergency emotional resources for students, such as the phone number for a local rape crisis center or the police department. This information should be included on your school website as well as in your student handbook to make it as easy as possible to access. See Learning Courage’s section on “Supportive Services” for more information.

Lastly, recognize the emotional impact that these cases have on all those involved.  Consider how your school will provide emotional support to faculty, staff and families. This should include easy to access options for off-campus care. Bringing outside expertise can be useful when there is an event that has a big impact on a school like 9/11, school shootings, or student suicides, for example.  These are incredibly challenging situations for any school, and getting outside help enables everyone in the school community to access the support they need. 

Mandatory Reporting

When there has been a report of sexual misconduct or abuse involving a minor, you need to adhere to all reporting obligations. Mandatory reporting laws vary by state, so make sure to be familiar with the laws in your state. Click here to check laws in your state using RAINN's database. Additionally, if your school receives federal funding for any purpose, you need to conform to all Title IX requirements and confirm you meet those criteria in your reporting and investigation procedures. See “Title IX Information” for more information.  Establishing strong working relationships with local law enforcement and/or state agencies and outlining specific roles and responsibilities in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) provides a roadmap for establishing a consistent response.  

We recommend that your school designate a mandated reporter who is responsible for disclosing allegations of abuse on behalf of the school. This person can fill different roles at your school.  The important thing is that this person’s role as reporter is universally known and their contact information is accessible to all employees. Faculty and staff should also be regularly reminded of this individual’s role and how to contact them if they suspect or know of misconduct or abuse. While this individual will be making reports on behalf of the school, it is still important to recognize that many states consider all adults (and therefore all employees) mandated reporters. In these cases, your school should create a protocol for how an individual employee will ensure that the information has been reported to the authorities as well as informing the institution.

Other Actions 

There are other considerations your school will have to take into account as you conduct a risk assessment. Your school should be ready to answer and respond to these questions, and more, after receiving a report of sexual misconduct or abuse:

Off-Campus Emergency Services

Some schools have off-campus programs, such as study abroad programs. In the event that there has been a report of sexual misconduct on an off-campus trip, your response protocol for these circumstances should be included in your emergency response guide. You will have to decide what resources and accommodations (medical, emotional, etc.) will be available to students off-campus. Make sure to designate an individual for all off-campus activities sponsored or endorsed by the school, such as the director of that program, who will be responsible for overseeing emergency services to student(s). This individual must be familiar with the emergency response protocol, which should also include notification to the school and law enforcement as soon as feasible and according to local law.

In addition to response practices, review your insurance coverage to confirm that any off-campus activities and trips are included in your current policy.  And keep in mind that your policy is specific to the time period of any incident.  If you did not have coverage at the time assault is alleged, that incident is not likely covered by your policy.  Understand where your risk is, and discuss this with your current provider.


When there has been a report of sexual misconduct or abuse, your school will face the question of what, if anything, is appropriate and necessary to communicate to members of the school community or other groups and how this information should be communicated. These kinds of communications can be complex and delicate. And communicating about these incidents requires skill, knowledge, timeliness, and care.

Privacy and confidentiality rights of minors and employees will have to be considered in all communications. See Learning Courage’s section on “Communications Guidelines” for more information on how to prepare a communications plan.

Security Protocols

Sometimes sexual assault includes physical violence.  If anyone in the school community is in physical danger, you will need to act immediately to ensure their safety.  This requires having a plan and following it. Once you have a plan, make sure that you are regularly reviewing and updating these details to ensure the safety of the school community. See Learning Courage’s section on “Commitment to Student Safety” for more information.

Signs and Symptoms

All students, regardless of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, age, or other identities can be victims of sexual misconduct and abuse. Misconduct and abuse can occur anywhere, but it is important to note that 93% of survivors/victims of sexual abuse are abused by trusted individuals in their life ( Educators and school staff members have unique opportunities to identify when students have been harmed, regardless of where the harm takes place. We at Learning Courage believe that knowing the signs and symptoms of sexual misconduct and abuse is only part of being an engaged member of the community. Knowing these signs will enable you to know what to look for. In many ways, educators are the first line of defense in protecting students. You will notice that we use statistics and content from other experts within our field. We do this to recognize the excellent work of our peers, particularly in areas outside of our core focus.

As stated in Learning Courage’s Best Practices Regarding Policies and Procedures: Schools should be specific about: 

  1. Who individuals can go to if they are concerned about misconduct
  2. What your commitment is to your community, what resources are available to victims/survivors both on and off-campus 
  3. How you can support them 

When a victim/survivor says they have been abused. it is an adult’s role to believe them and initiate the school’s process for support and investigation while complying with mandatory reporting laws. Victims/survivors may show a multitude of different signs and symptoms of sexual abuse.

Part of building a culture of safety and support around issues of sexual misconduct and abuse is ensuring that the community knows and understands the signs and symptoms of abuse. These can be shared and communicated in many ways such as through faculty meetings, school assemblies, handbooks, the school’s website, posters hung about your campus, outside speakers, modules in curriculum, etc. For these programs to be effective, your school should consider ways to inform your community. The primary attention should be placed on current students, faculty, and staff, although it’s also beneficial to share this information with parents and alumni as well.

Methods for Informing Your Community on Signs and Symptoms of Sexual Abuse 

At Learning Courage we believe that informing your community on the signs and symptoms is only one part of the school’s commitment to reducing sexual misconduct and abuse. Best practices, we believe, are wide-ranging and follow a holistic and survivor-centered approach. 

Best practices for adults in the school community: 

Best practices for educating the school community on signs and symptoms:

Early or preemptive identification of sexual abuse can play a key role in minimizing the long-term impacts on the survivor. Below are several signs and symptoms of sexual abuse as well as signs and symptoms of predatory behavior.

Signs and Symptoms of Sexual Abuse

What are Signs From a Student That Should Alert Others to Suspect Sexual Abuse?

A student who is being sexually abused can present signs and symptoms in many different ways and some students do not directly show any signs or symptoms, which is why this can be tricky. The ways in which students suffer from sexual abuse are wide-ranging and the following are just some of the countless ways a victim/survivor might manifest signs of abuse either physically, behaviorally, or emotionally.

Physical Signs of Misconduct and Abuse

Physical signs are often the most rare in cases of sexual abuse in schools because of the trusting nature perpetrators instill in their victims as well as that 93% of survivors/victims of sexual abuse are abused by trusted individuals in their life1

Physical signs of student sexual abuse include but are not limited to (

Behavioral and Emotional Signs of Misconduct and Abuse

Behavioral and emotional changes in a student are more common than physical signs of sexual abuse. Behavioral and emotional changes can often be brushed off because the victim can simultaneously be going through puberty and teenage years which present their own challenges. Most of the behavior challenges that are signs of sexual abuse include but are not limited to a decline in trust, changes in hygiene practices, changes in performance at school (ie: lower grades, decreased enthusiasm or energy in class), a loss of interest in social activity, rebellious behavior, and drug and alcohol abuse. Emotional signs of abuse include but are not limited to nightmares, excessive worrying, anxiety, depression, and a loss of confidence. Behavioral and emotional signs are more often seen in adolescents than younger children. 

Behavioral signs of student sexual abuse include but are not limited to (

Emotional signs of student sexual abuse include but are not limited to: 

Indicators of an Adult Perpetrator of Sexual Abuse 

What Are Signs That Both Students and Adults Can Look For to Identify Adult Perpetrators of Sexual Abuse? 

As stated earlier, educators are often thought of as the first line of defense in protecting students from sexual abuse and recognizing the signs of the abuse they might be enduring. Educators also may be the perpetrators of the sexual abuse. It is therefore important to note that 93% of survivors/victims of sexual abuse are abused by trusted individuals in their life ( (i.e. teachers, coaches, family friends, classmates, etc.). 

Behaviors that indicate potential adult predatory behavior include but are not limited to the following ( :


There are many different actions that adults can use to engage in grooming students in their care. “Grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust, and emotional connection with a child or young person (student) so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them." ( Grooming can occur over the internet as well as in person. Not all perpetrators of sexual abuse engage in grooming habits. Abuse can occur in many different venues at any time. Still, grooming actions can be a very clear sign that abuse is occurring or about to occur. 

Grooming behaviors usually follow, but is not limited to, this outline (

  1. Targeting: The perpetrator will find a “vulnerable” student.  Example: The perpetrator may target a student based on a perceived vulnerability such as a student who is unsupervised by parents or lacks meaningful relationships with adults.
  1. Gaining trust: The perpetrator will then find and attend to the student’s needs that make them vulnerable in order to gain trust with the student. Example: The perpetrator will share personal information or secrets with the student.
  1. Filling a need: The perpetrator will insert themself as an increasingly important figure in the student's life. Example: The perpetrator will become over-involved in an increasing amount of aspects of the student’s life.
  1. Isolating the student: The perpetrator will then find ways to have isolated interactions with the student where misconduct can occur. Example: the perpetrator has one-to-one coaching with the student or sleepovers.
  1. Sexualization: The perpetrator will engage in physical touch or sexualize talk that can be regarded as “accidental or playful”, which can enable them to advance in abuse.  Example: an adult speaking with a student about their or the student’s personal relationships. 
  1. Control: The perpetrator will use guilt tactics to enforce a secret and continued participation of the student. Example: the perpetrator will use language to make the student think the events are their fault and will make their life worse or more complicated by sharing the events with others. 

It is important to note that not all perpetrators engage in grooming practices with the student; if grooming does occur, the series of events and the subsequent abuse can occur in any number of ways. There is no prototypical perpetrator or victim/survivor when abuse occurs. (Darkness to Light) 

Boundary Violations

Not all boundary violations are clear engagement in grooming and not all grooming behaviors are clear boundary violations. At Learning Courage we believe schools need to clearly list and explain expectations of employees regarding boundaries in their relationships with students. This process starts with the administration frequently and clearly stating their expectations with all employees around maintaining appropriate boundaries. A boundary violation in a school setting involves any behavior or action by an adult that falls outside professional expectations and causes harm or discomfort to a student3. Teachers are trusted to care safely for their students. A boundary violation is any behavior or action that degrades this trust in the professional contract between a teacher and student. Boundary violations can occur in multiple ways, including emotional, physical, technological, financial, and communicational3. Boundary violations are not always clear, which is why it is important to maintain regular discussions on the topic. But it is the teacher’s responsibility rather than the student to maintain appropriate boundaries and be thoughtful of how their behavior may be perceived as approaching or crossing boundaries. 

Types of boundary violations include but are not limited to (Lucy McAllister)

What is Online Sexual Misconduct and Abuse?

Online misconduct is defined as “when one person manipulates another person to get them to do something sexual — it’s an ongoing cycle of emotional and psychological abuse. This can include things such as forcing or blackmailing someone into sending sexual photos/videos of themselves online or to perform sexual acts over webcam4.” Not only does this have the potential to create emotional and psychological abuse for the victim, but the online transfer of sexually explicit photos of minors is considered child pornography and can lead to serious legal consequences4. Online sexual misconduct is not limited to adult student contact, but also includes adult to adult and student to student online interactions. Most schools have acceptable use policies that articulate their rules regarding online behavior, sexting, and more. 

Online Sexual Misconduct and Abuse includes but is not limited to (Kids Help Phone)

Sexual misconduct and abuse can occur in any place and at any time, which includes online spaces. When sexual misconduct and abuse occur online it presents with some unique signs and symptoms compared to the signs and symptoms of sexual misconduct that occur offline. The following are some examples of signs of online sexual misconduct. 

Signs of online misconduct include but are not limited to (Stop It Now):

Remote Learning Best Practices

Remote learning is beginning to take a new role in schools across the country. With this change in the way schools are engaging in learning online come new risks of how sexual abuse might adapt to the online environment. Both students and teachers are having more access now than ever before into personal spaces and with that comes an increased risk of misconduct. 

Some techniques to maintain a safe remote learning environment (Equal

For more information on remote learning environments, see the "COVID-19 Resources" page.

Student Handbook

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

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

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

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

Stating Your School’s Culture 

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

Student Safety and Wellness

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

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

Acknowledgment and Understanding of Material 

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

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

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

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

Sexual Harassment, Misconduct and Abuse Policies

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

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

Reporting Requirements 

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

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


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

Terms and Definitions

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

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

Reporting Requirements

Reporting sexual misconduct and abuse can be both scary and confusing. For a survivor, not only do they have to gather the courage to disclose their experience, but they also have to determine how they want to report. Survivors typically feel a deep sense of shame for their role in what happened. While they may know intuitively that they are not responsible for the abuse, most survivors internalize some sense that they are in some way to blame for what happened. It can also be very difficult for a concerned peer or employee to determine what is the best action to help a survivor. 

At Learning Courage, we believe your school has a responsibility to survivors to create a system for reporting incidents that is simple to follow, straightforward, and as transparent as possible.  In short, anyone in a position to report an incident of abuse needs to trust that the system will work for them rather than deepen their trauma.

We recognize developing effective policies is complicated, especially with differences in state laws concerning reporting sexual abuse. This document outlines our recommended best practices for developing an easy-to-follow reporting policy for sexual misconduct and abuse.

What to Cover in Reporting Misconduct and Abuse Policy:

Interim Support Measures for current students 

General Best Practices Regarding Reporting Policy 

Different instances of misconduct and abuse will require different modes of reporting. The reporting party may be a student, employee, or alumni. Your school should have reporting options specifically tailored to the needs of each of these three groups. Additionally, your school should offer both internal and external reporting options for reports. 

State and Federal Laws

Title IX is a piece of federal legislation that applies to institutions that receive federal funding. Although Title IX may not apply to your school, the legislation is generally a good example to follow when you are developing a sexual misconduct and abuse policy.  Learning Courage’s “Title IX Information” page summarizes the best practices of Title IX and includes recommendations on how to apply its principles to your school.

Laws regarding reporting sexual misconduct and abuse vary by state. The following resources will help familiarize you with your state’s laws:

  1. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN): A searchable database you can use to identify all of your state’s laws regarding sex crimes, including mandated reporting and confidentiality laws.
  2.  State Laws on Reporting and Responding to Child Abuse and Neglect: A compilation of state laws on reporting child abuse provided by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
  3. Child Sexual Abuse National & State Resources: A database containing external reporting and support resources for survivors of child sexual abuse as well as information on mandated reporting laws by state provided by Darkness to Light, a child advocacy group.

 Disclaimer: Learning Courage cannot guarantee that these resources are continually updated, so please make sure to check whether the information provided by these websites are up-to-date with your state.

Establishing a Memorandum of Understanding with Local Police

Your local police department may need to get involved in responding to an incident of sexual abuse or misconduct at your school. If a student or employee chooses to make an external report, that external report may be made to your local law enforcement. Also, when your school is made aware of a report of sexual misconduct or abuse of a child (child being a person under the age of 18) you will be required to file a report with either your local police department, the U.S. Department of Children and Families (DCF), or both. In this case, your school may be limited in how you can respond to a report until the police and/or DCF have completed their investigation. This is why we recommend that your school establish a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with your local police department. The MOU should outline how your institution and the local police department will respond, either jointly or separately, to reports of sexual misconduct and abuse. This ensures a working relationship, so your school does not have to scramble to communicate with law enforcement when an external report is made from your community.  Establishing a MOU with local law enforcement also demonstrates to the community that you are being proactive in your approach to addressing these issues.

Summer School and Off-Campus Policies

Unfortunately, incidents of sexual misconduct and abuse are not limited to the academic year and on-campus. It is therefore important to have reporting policies in place for students and employees to consult in case they need to report during breaks, summer, or off-campus events. Your school should articulate how the reporting policy pertains to summer school programs, student travel, study abroad, sports, off-campus trips and events, and more. This can be quite intricate, but it is important to spend the time clearly addressing this issue within your policies, to be communicated in your student and employee handbooks and on your website.  Your insurance provider can share appropriate language and identify the specifics that your policy should include.

Online and Distance Learning Policies 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rise in the utilization of online and distance learning platforms. While it may be true that virtual gatherings and communications come with a decreased risk of physical sexual misconduct and abuse on campus, they also likely come with an increased risk of sexual misconduct or abuse via electronic devices. It is critical that you keep your students and employees accountable for the safety of the community while engaging in online and distance learning. Make sure your community members are aware of appropriate behaviors while engaging with each other on-line. Set strict boundaries, such as no sharing personal phone numbers, emails, and social media between students and teachers. As is the case with in-person student-to-teacher interactions, communication online should be friendly, but professional. For more information regarding boundary violations online, see Learning Courage’s “COVID-19 Implications” and “Signs and Symptoms” pages. 

It is also important to make sure reporting options are still available to your students and employees during the time of on-line and distance learning. While the focus of our work is on school-related abuse and misconduct, it’s important to recognize that increased stress can also mean an increase in abuse for students who live at home. Employees need to be trained and have resources available to assist a student if they recognize signs of abuse or a student discloses the abuse. For example, it may not be an option to offer in-person counseling to students, but your school could still offer counseling via phone call or Zoom/Skype. If your school has a whistleblower hotline during the “normal” school year, we recommend that you keep it active during on-line and distance learning (see “Student Reporting Policy” below).

Student Reporting Policy

Reporting sexual misconduct and abuse can be scary and intimidating. A survivor may be re-traumatized by the event as well as concerned about all of the unknowns and possible implications that arise with reporting. Therefore, your school must make the reporting process as straightforward as possible by providing specific information about who survivors can go to and what resources are available to survivors both on and off-campus.

For example, stating that a student should go to a “trusted adult” assumes that there is an obvious choice for that student. It also assumes that the adult they choose has been trained in how to handle a report. Your school likely already has a school counselor who is trained to notice and respond to abuse. However, we recommend that there be a few other employees on campus who are trained in this as well and that all of the trained contacts are clearly named with contact information in school communications.

Reporting options should be made known in multiple places, including your school’s website and student handbook (Fig. 1). It is best to have supportive, easy-to-follow instructions for students, knowing it may be scary for them to consider reporting. One option is to provide a decision tree for students (Fig. 2). Guidelines on how or when to report to authorities should be included. It may be helpful to provide a whistleblower hotline, like EthicsPoint, which is completely confidential and available 24 hours a day. 

Fig 1. An example of a list of reporting resources your school may provide to students

Fig 2. An example of a reporting decision tree that your school may provide to students

Student Interactions with Mandated Reporters

If a student has been a victim of sexual misconduct or abuse, they may seek out a school employee for counsel. The survivor may choose to confide in this employee but not necessarily intend to submit an official report of the misconduct or abuse. This is an issue when that employee who the student chooses is a mandated reporter (see “Mandated Reporting” below). A survivor of abuse has likely sustained emotional, mental, and spiritual trauma, some of which may be associated with losing control. Often, the only thing a survivor feels like they can control is the story of the experience itself; it can deepen the trauma for a survivor when someone else shares the story without the survivor’s permission. However, a mandated reporter may be obligated to share that story whether it is the survivor’s wish or not. This is why all students must understand that a conversation with a mandated reporter is never confidential. It is good for students to feel comfortable sharing their experiences with certain school employees, but they must understand the potential implications of doing so. Clearly articulate the difference between confidential and private conversations to students through in-person training as well as in the student handbook. 

Immunity Provisions

We recommend that your school have immunity provisions to encourage reporting from students. An immunity provision either partially or entirely protects a reporting student from formal punishment if they were violating another school policy when the misconduct or abuse occurred. These may also be referred to as sanctuary policies or amnesty provisions. It is ultimately up to your school to decide how to discipline any student who violates school policies, but we encourage you to recognize the value in reducing the fear associated with reporting by letting students know that they will not be punished for coming forward with their experiences and being completely honest.

Notifying Parents/Guardians

As a school administrator, you already know how critical your school’s relationship with your students’ parents/guardians is for a successful community. In the case that the reporting and responding parties are both students, your school should develop a protocol for if, how, and when the parents/guardians of either party will be notified of the report. Most states require by law that the parents or legal guardians of a child (child is defined as a person under the age of 18) be notified if the child was involved in a report of sexual abuse. We believe it is your school’s obligation to notify the parents or legal guardians of students under the age of 18 if they are involved in a report of sexual misconduct or abuse. This ensures transparent communication between your school and your students’ parents/guardians that will help to build a trusting relationship. It is up to your school to decide whether this policy extends to parents and legal guardians of students over the age of 18. We recognize that there are different decision points throughout the reporting and investigation process for determining parent/guardian involvement. Some states have laws that also give parents/guardians rights to access to the investigation process following the report. Check with your legal counsel before making any decisions regarding policies for notifying parents/guardians of reports.

Support for Students

Your school should provide interim support measures to both reporting and responding students if needed. These measures may include but are not limited to: academic accommodations, housing accommodations (if a student lives on campus), medical support services, counseling services, and allowing the reporting student a leave of absence. The support measures your school is able to provide to reporting students should be mentioned on your school’s website and in the student handbook. For more information, see Learning Courage’s “Supportive Services” page.

Adult (Employee) Reporting Policy

Mandated Reporting

A mandated reporter is a person who is obligated to report if they know of or suspect abuse. Mandated reporting laws differ based on state (See RAINN policy database). According to new Title IX regulations, all school employees are considered mandated reporters. Even if Title IX does not apply to your school, most employees at your school who work with minors will likely be considered mandated reporters, meaning they are obligated to report when they know of or suspect abuse of a minor. All employees who are considered mandated reporters by law should be made aware of their role. All mandated reporters should also receive proper training on how to identify the signs and symptoms of abuse as well as how to report if they know of or suspect abuse. In addition to in-person training, this information should also be made available in your school’s employee handbook. 

Reporting Adult-on-Adult Sexual Misconduct and Abuse

Your employees are valued community members, which is why it is important for your school to demonstrate commitment to employee safety in addition to the safety of your students. Provide specific internal and external reporting options to your employees and make sure to include this information in the employee handbook. We also recommend that your school provide support options for reporting employees. This may include the option to take a leave of absence and/or getting them in touch with a therapist for mental health support. It is crucial that reporting employees be protected from retaliation, especially if the responding party is their superior. Not only does having non-retaliation policies in place make the workplace safer for all employees, but these protections are required by federal and state laws. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires whistleblower protections for private-sector employees [Whistleblower Complaint Form | Occupational Safety and Health Administration], and Title IX prohibits retaliation for making reports in all schools that receive federal funding (See Learning Courage’s “Title IX Information” page).

Historic Misconduct and Abuse Reporting Policy

Our philosophy regarding what your school’s attitude should be towards addressing historic misconduct and abuse is outlined in Learning Courage’s “Historic Misconduct and Abuse” page:

As a school leader, you may believe the need to confront historic misconduct and abuse does not apply to your institution. The unfortunate reality is that, if your institution has been around for any substantial period of time, there is likely to be a painful history of misconduct and abuse within your community. Some schools may be more affected by this issue than others, but it is unlikely that your school has never been affected. The question is how your school will address that history. 

Therefore, we strongly believe that your school should consider reaching out to all former students to inquire about past instances of sexual misconduct and abuse in your community. This is a difficult task; for our recommended best practices, see Learning Courage’s “Historic Misconduct and Abuse” page.

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.


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.


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.


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.