The Eyes and Ears of Boarding School

By Elena Levin, Brown University, Class of 2022

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

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

Hookup Culture

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

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

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

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

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

Indoctrination 

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

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

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

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

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

The School’s Role and Reactions 

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

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

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

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

Solutions 

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

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

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

Conclusion 

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

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

Disclaimer: 

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

Risk Assessment

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

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

Environmental Scan

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

Physical Space

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

Policies and Procedures

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

School Culture and Climate

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

Administrative / Committee Structure

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

Current Student Misconduct and Abuse

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

Adult Misconduct and Abuse

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

Historic Misconduct and Abuse

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

Training

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

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

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

Communications

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

Board of Trustees

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

Legal

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

Insurance

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

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

Supportive Services

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

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

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

Supportive Services for Current Students 

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

Clear Avenues for Student Assistance 

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

An example of a decision tree is shown below: 

Counseling Services 

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

Medical Services 

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

Accommodations  

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

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

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

Defined Terms and Policies 

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

Supportive Services for Alumni 

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

Clear Avenues for Assistance For Alumni  

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

Counseling 

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

Arbitration/Legal Services 

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

Supportive Services for Employees

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

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

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

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

Restorative Justice

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

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

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

How does restorative justice work?

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

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

Cheryl Graves-Community Justice for Youth Institute

How restorative justice has been used for truth and reconciliation

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

Restorative Justice Results in Schools

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

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

Restorative Justice and Title IX

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

How can restorative justice be implemented in classrooms?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can your school begin implementing restorative justice practices?

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

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

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

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

Investigations and Responding Practices

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

Investigation and Response Protocols

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

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

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

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

Different Types of Investigations and Considerations

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

Common Steps Toward Healing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Communications

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 (RAINN.org). 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 (Rainn.org):

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 (RAINN.org)

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 (RAINN.org) (i.e. teachers, coaches, family friends, classmates, etc.). 

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

Grooming

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." (NSPCC.org) 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 (RAINN.org)

  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 Rights.org)

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

Climate Surveys

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

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

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

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

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

Title IX Information

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

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

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

Summary of our Observations and Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Title IX?

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

Recent Changes to Title IX 

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

Implications of the Recent Changes to Title IX

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

Who enforces Title IX? 

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

Who does Title IX apply to?

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

What is a Title IX Coordinator?

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

Our Observations and Recommendations

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

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

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

Definition of Sexual Harassment Under Title IX

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

Our Observations and Recommendations

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

Other Important Terms Used in Title IX Documents

Our Observations and Recommendations

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

When a School Must Act & Mandated Reporting

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

Our Observations and Recommendations

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

Notice of Nondiscrimination

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

Our Observations and Recommendations

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

Grievance Procedure

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

Our Observations and Recommendations

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

Schools’ Mandatory Response Obligations

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

Our Observations and Recommendations

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

Investigations

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

Our Observations and Recommendations

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

Hearings

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

Our Observations and Recommendations

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

Standard of Evidence and Written Determination

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

Our Observations and Recommendations

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

Appeals

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

Our Observations and Recommendations

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

Informal Resolution

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

Our Observations and Recommendations

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

Retaliation Prohibited

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

Our Observations and Recommendations

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

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

Student Handbook

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

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

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

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

Stating Your School’s Culture 

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

Student Safety and Wellness

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

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

Acknowledgment and Understanding of Material 

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

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

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

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

Sexual Harassment, Misconduct and Abuse Policies

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

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

Reporting Requirements 

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

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

Resources 

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

Terms and Definitions

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

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

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.

A Survivor's Journey

Please Note: This post contains graphic details of sexual assault.  If this type of content is upsetting to you or may be unhealthy for you to read, please don’t.  You will still benefit from picking up in future posts on this topic. 

What I write here is based on my experience.  It is also informed by conversations with many other survivors of sexual abuse - both men and women.  My words may resonate strongly for some and less (or not at all) for others.  Regardless, my objective in sharing them is to create a deeper understanding of the complexity of sexual abuse by bringing you to some of the complicated moments, tough decisions, actions that made a difference, things that made me feel vulnerable and things that made me feel deeply connected.  

Making a public declaration that I had been abused in the 1980s as a student was terrifying.  And yet it has also been one of the most meaningful and profound things I have done in my life.  It has changed me in positive ways that I’ll share. And it has exposed an inner strength that I intuitively felt I had but had never used.  It also brought up old, painful memories and left me wondering if I was doing the right thing more times than I can remember.  

I won’t try to cover the full experience in one blog post.  There’s too much to discuss.  Instead I will address different aspects of my experience as a survivor in different posts.  Some of the topics I’ll cover include: 

  1. Impact of my abuse
  2. My healing journey
  3. Deciding to disclose my abuse 
  4. Participating in the Investigation
  5. Becoming a public survivor
  6. Pressing Charges
  7. Learning from other survivors
  8. Dealing with Indictment and extradition
  9. Setting expectations for an outcome in the case 

While you are not likely to enjoy reading what I’ve written, I hope that it is instructive and useful for you, regardless of your experience or knowledge of sexual abuse.  I also hope that it provides some measure of comfort for others who have been sexually assaulted.  Even though our stories will differ, the feeling of shame is common to abuse survivors.  Disclosing these details is also intended to demystify aspects of the survivor experience.  Hopefully it will even support healing, even if just to decrease a feeling of isolation for those who have experienced this pain.  

Pause.  Take a deep breath. It’s 1981.  Welcome to my early teens.


I was sexually abused when I was 13 years old, the summer before and during my freshman year at Milton Academy, an independent school in Milton, Massachusetts.  I grew up in Milton and had a family connection to the school on both sides of my family that went back over 100 years.  This connection was a source of both pride and expectation - mostly self-imposed. It felt like a foregone conclusion that I would also attend the school.  

Academics at Milton were rigorous compared to my public elementary school, and I realized quickly that I’d need to work really hard.  One thing that made the transition into Milton easy for me was that I had three cousins already enrolled who were also close friends. It was with two of those cousins, Doug and Will, that I decided to go on an adventure biking through the countryside of northern Italy, which was led by a teacher from school, Rey Buono.  

Rey was in his mid-30s.  He had thinning wavy salt and pepper hair and a mustache. He had this strange habit of smoking only the first half of the cigarette and putting the rest out.  There was this nervous energy about him that was foreign to me.  His heels rarely touched the ground as he walked. I had heard stories about Rey and how he let kids drink and smoke on the trip and sometimes in his on-campus apartment.  My teenage brain registered that as Wow!  How cool!.  There were rumors that Rey was gay and that he made sexual advances towards male students. Again, my teenage brain: I am going with my buddies.  Together we are practically invincible!  

On the trip, we mostly stayed in campgrounds. In the larger cities, we stayed in small inns.  Rey had a system for randomly assigning sleeping arrangements. In the campgrounds, that meant someone was always sharing a tent with Rey.  And in the pensione, the rooms usually had multiple beds. Sometimes they were twins and other times they were double beds.  The lottery for sleeping assignments worked in my favor, and I never shared a tent or bed with Rey - until one of our final evenings of the trip.

We were in a pensione in Venice, and my bed assignment was in a room with two twin beds and a double bed. Somehow I ended up assigned to the double bed with Rey. I was uncomfortable with the sleeping arrangements but also relieved that there were two others from the trip sleeping in the other beds.  After dinner, Will and Doug and I headed off to drink rum and Cokes by the side of one of the canals.  I hoped we would be out long enough to find everyone asleep when we got back to the room.  That’s not what happened.  I delayed getting into bed.  At some point in the night, I remember feeling Rey’s hands on my back.  I froze.  What is happening? His hands continued moving around my body and ultimately rested on my penis, which he began to massage.  I was terrified and confused. What did I do to make him think I wanted this? Why is my body responding to his touch? I smelled cigarettes and wine on his breath. I don’t want this!  Is anyone else awake? How do I make this stop? 

I turned over so he couldn’t touch me, and he just kept pushing his hands underneath me.  I got out of bed and went to the bathroom, trying to figure out what to do and hoping that he would fall asleep.  When I got back into bed, Rey touched me again. Just stop!  Can’t you tell that I don’t want this to happen?  Why are you doing this? Does my erection mean that I have somehow suppressed homosexual feelings until now, and his touch somehow awakened awareness of my true sexuality?  Doug and Will are here with me!  I have to let them know what Rey did.

After breakfast the next day, I pulled Doug and Will aside. What a relief to have close friends with me to trust with my horror and shame. I wasn’t sure how they would respond, but I knew I had to tell them.  There’s nothing we can do about this, but I have to tell them.  They will believe me.  I need someone to believe me. When Doug heard, he became really angry and told me that he was going to confront Rey.  Yes! But what if he denies it?  What if he blames me for touching him? I felt an overwhelming sense of being cared for and that Doug’s conversation would prevent this from happening to me again. And I felt fear for how Rey would react.  What if he gets mad at me? 

My parents raised me to follow rules and respect adults, so Doug’s advocacy was powerful, and unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life.  It was an incredible act of courage to confront Rey.  Here was a teen calling out an adult for inappropriate behavior.  I would never have had the courage to do what Doug did for me.  At a time when I felt unable to advocate for myself beyond telling my friends what happened, Doug stepped in and seemed to know exactly what to do.  He spoke for me when I didn’t know how.  It was a huge relief.

“Rey, you fucked up,” Doug told him. There was no denial.  “I’m really sorry,” he admitted. “That won’t happen again.”

The night I returned home, my mom sat on my bed and cried as she told me that she and my father were separating.  My parents were not emotionally expressive, so seeing her cry really hit me hard.  How could I possibly add to her sadness by telling her what Rey did to me. My world felt fractured.  Two horrible life experiences collided at the same time.  At least I could share one of them with friends and classmates. Being molested, on the other hand, didn’t feel quite as socially acceptable to discuss as my parent’s separation. Besides, I had told my buddies, and everything was going to be OK. Rey wouldn’t dare try that again after Doug’s confrontation. I wanted so much to believe that it was an isolated incident.  And not telling my mother also meant I didn’t have to deal with the questions she might ask.  

But not telling my mom also meant that she believed everything was terrific about the bike trip and that Rey was a great guy.  I gave her no reason to believe otherwise.  So in a cruel twist that was based in love, she asked administrators at Milton if Rey could be my academic advisor.  She felt like he knew me and might be a better support than someone else at the school during the early days of my parents’ separation. Oh no! What do I do now?  I felt so stuck when she told me.  She was trying to do the right thing for me, actually sticking her head out on my behalf, which wasn’t a common behavior for her at the time.  I forget whether I wrestled with saying anything to my mom about Rey becoming my advisor.  I knew it would be a challenging year academically, and maybe I wanted to believe that what happened in Italy wouldn’t happen at school. Now I have to pretend this is fine with me.  She had no idea that I didn’t like the idea.  I’m so stuck.

The first evidence that the abuse would continue came before school even started.  My mother invited Rey to join us for a weekend on Cape Cod.  Looking back, I know how wildly inappropriate this was.  What a blurring of boundaries!  I don’t recall any discussion with her about inviting him.  At this point, I was trying so desperately to make it look like everything was just fine with me. I had a girlfriend; I had plenty of friends; I was co-captain of the JV lacrosse team. I can’t let anyone know that anything is wrong. One of the nights Rey was with us on the Cape, we were hanging out in my room listening to music.  It was a small room, with not much space for more than a couple twin beds, so that’s where we sat.  After a while, he put his hand on my thigh and then moved his hand toward my crotch.  I remember feeling a sense of anger and inner strength.  I moved his hand and told him, “no.”  This is my space.  You are on my turf.  I was in a home I loved where I spent my childhood summers. I was strong and centered enough to say no and asked him to stop during that visit.

There are a lot of details I don’t recall about that year.  And there are others I remember very well.  Rey was present throughout that year not just because he was my advisor but also because he directed the freshman play. I loved acting and had looked forward to the play, hoping I’d get a decent role, but I now had this added challenge of being directed by Rey.  When he cast me in a lead role, I worried whether it was my acting ability or if Rey had some other motive.

To say that I struggled academically at Milton is putting it mildly.   I know now that my learning style was not suited for learning by reading and memorizing details.  All I knew then was that my grades were barely passing despite the 3-4 hours of work I put in each night on homework. At some point in the fall, Rey offered to help me prepare for a history test in a class that had been difficult for me.  Did I ask for his help or tell him I was struggling? As my advisor, he knew how I was doing. Come to my apartment on campus, he offered. I can help you prepare. I was scared I might fail and felt I didn’t have another option.  And by then, I was so deep into the deception of pretending that everything was just fine, so I suspect I felt I had no choice.  

Like many things in my life from 35 years ago, I don’t remember much about these study sessions.  But each one ended with him giving me a blow job.  I was really into girls and never before had thoughts that I might be gay.  But what does it mean if I keep going to his apartment?  I felt ashamed.  Unlike when I was in Italy, I didn’t feel like I could tell friends. How can I stop this? Why do I keep ending up here when I hate it? Will I make it through Milton? What would my friends and family think if they found out? Why can’t I make it stop?  

These were all questions that came up while I drifted off to sleep.  They followed me on my way to school.  They sat next to me in every class.  They haunted me on the lacrosse field.  The shame congealed and settled into my veins. I am a bad person.  I am not smart.  I am an imposter in every aspect of my life.  I am only here because of my family legacy. I don’t deserve to be here. I can’t leave.  I have to make it.  I can’t stay.  I have to get out.

I was so unhappy that I began to imagine the possibility of killing myself.  I didn’t really want to die, but I didn’t want to live either.  I hinted at some of my thoughts to Doug one day as we sat in his room listening to and analyzing the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s album, Dark Side of the Moon.  “You raise the blade; you make the change; you rearrange me ‘till I’m sane.” This was about suicide, I reasoned.  “Jamie,” Doug said, “this is actually about a lobotomy.”  It was written about Syd Barrett, one of the founders of the group who fell into extreme mental illness during the band’s rise to fame.  

Doug was a huge Pink Floyd fan and avid reader.  I always admired this about Doug. He’s an incredibly smart guy. Being friends with him made me feel a bit less like a fake.  At least I’m smart enough that Doug seems to enjoy hanging with me.  The conversation about the Pink Floyd lyrics gave Doug yet another clue that I was really struggling.  A couple of days later, he asked me for permission to tell his mother what happened on the bike trip.  

Yes!  Please!  This is how to make Rey stop!  But what if people find out that I’ve been going to Rey’s apartment? Then everyone at school will think I enjoyed what he is doing to me!  Maybe they already think I’m gay, and I’m the only one who never considered it. While I was ashamed of what might come out about my behavior, what was more important to me was that this might lead to the abuse stopping.  I gave Doug permission to speak with his mother.

Doug’s mother, Sue, was always someone I felt comfortable speaking with so it felt OK to me that she know.  I also knew her to be righteous and unafraid to speak her mind.  I had personal experience with this.  These things made me feel more at ease.

Sue pulled me aside within a day or two and asked me if what Doug had told her was true.  We sat in her red station wagon outside my house, and she asked me if she could share this information with my mom.  I don’t have any memory of discussing with my mom the details of the abuse or what would happen next.  Sue offered to write and then send a letter to the administration at Milton, telling them that Rey had sexually abused me.  She sent the letter. 

And then nobody at school asked me about the bike trip or whether anything had happened afterward.  

There was silence! 

What a relief! But what is happening?  What do they know?  What are they doing? They must know everything. How do they know without speaking with me?  Who is telling them about what happened?  Someone must be.  I’m so relieved this is over.  Is it over?

At least Rey was no longer my advisor, and the abuse was over.

But there was no discussion. Nobody from the school asked me any questions.  The only thing I remember hearing about what was happening was that Rey would be prohibited from doing more bike trips.  I was so relieved that no other kids would ever have to experience what happened to me on the trip.  

I never questioned why Rey was still at the school.  What was most important to me was that the abuse stopped.  I could try to pretend everything was OK.  I can do this. But everything wasn’t OK.  I don’t know how to do this.  I’m not sure I want to do this.  The shame ate at me. It tore at my self-confidence and consumed my sense of worthiness. Friends were my only solace.  I threw myself into singing in a rock band, playing lacrosse, and I smoked a lot of pot.  Friends continued to like me even when I struggled to like myself.  I surrounded myself with them as much as possible.  My friends, I believe, literally saved me. Just don’t take away my friends.

Peers continued to be a major source of comfort to me through the rest of my years at Milton.  They made me feel less like a fraud.  There was safety in numbers.  We had each other’s back.  When others failed to protect me, friends were always there.  With close friends and family, I became open about what Rey had done to me.  Even though I wasn’t strong enough to stop Rey in Italy, I told friends.  And they helped me stop it.  They don’t need to know there is more to the story.  Tenacity, fear, hard work, close friendships and some luck, I managed to stay at Milton.

On a beautiful day in June of 1985, my two grandfathers, graduates themselves, presented me with my diploma.  I still felt like damaged goods, unworthy of their pride, but I made it.

The abuse stopped.  But it didn’t go away.

The next in this series of blog posts will focus on the impact of the abuse in my life after high school. If you'd like to receive updates on future blog posts, you can register for them by clicking here.  

Note that this is obviously not a ‘victim statement’ or testimony of any kind – I have already done that under oath and I’m quite glad to have it behind me – but rather my own story in human terms as I experienced it.  Particularly as to my own scattered teenage thoughts, which I have rendered here in italics, I’ve written what I felt as I remember it now (I did not keep a contemporaneous journal at the time), and not anything that I would wish to have taken verbatim as fact.