A Crisis Is Coming - Is Your Board on Board?

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

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

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

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

To read the full article, click here.

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 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.”


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.


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. 


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.

Definition of Terms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consent can be:(source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazing legislation varies by state. State Laws 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online sexual abuse or misconduct: “When one person manipulates another person to get them to do something sexual — it’s an ongoing cycle of emotional and psychological abuse. This can include things such as forcing or blackmailing someone into to sending sexual photos/videos of themselves online or to perform sexual acts over webcam.”(source) Not only does this have the potential to create emotional and psychological harm for the victim, but the online transfer of sexually explicit photos of minors is considered child pornography and can lead to serious legal consequences. See also “Sexting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retraumatization can be caused by:(source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title IX: Title IX is a federal civil rights law that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”(source) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Information about Trauma: What is Trauma

Stalking information: Definition of Stalking — Judicial Education Center

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

Workplace harassment: Harassment | US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

National Center Against Bullying: Definition Of Bullying

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.

Communications Guidelines

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

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

Steps Schools Should Follow

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

Different Types of Communication

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

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

Have a Plan to Address Current Misconduct

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

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

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

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

Have a Plan for Addressing Historic Misconduct

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following details should be shared with the community:

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

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

What to Include in Updates to Community

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

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

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

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

Prevention and Training

Training and educating your school’s community is critical to reducing instances of sexual misconduct and abuse and to create a culture of care and respect. We recommend that your school assign a specific individual or even a committee of faculty members to plan and oversee training throughout the school year. Your school should determine a set format and frequency for training and follow that closely. Ideally, your school should also establish annual goals for training and prevention before each school year begins. 

Training should include a mixture of presentation and interaction. The presentation may only happen once a year, but the interaction or discussion should be ongoing throughout the year to solidify the learning and create more comfort with discussion on a topic that some can find challenging to discuss. We suggest that content be updated annually to ensure that it contains the most recent and accurate information that will keep students informed and engaged in understanding how to maintain safe behaviors and protect the community.  It is important that the training on topics that are delivered annually vary each time they are conducted so students and adults stay engaged. We recommend a three-four year cycle. 

Insurance providers and training professionals, including Learning Courage, can help you identify topics to cover and ways to differentiate the training over time so the content remains fresh while reinforcing the standards that must be maintained.

Employee and student training must be mandatory. And those who participate on a committee or are directly involved with responding to resorts of sexual abuse should receive trauma-informed and survivor-centric training to ensure they minimize additional trauma.

As you plan your training, make sure to check both with your insurance company for their recommendations and your state for requirements on sexual harassment training. In addition, this section contains our recommendations for organizing and conducting employee, student, and parent training to prevent sexual misconduct and abuse in K-12 schools.

Employee Training

Minimizing incidents requires equipping everyone in the community with information and tools to help them recognize misconduct and abuse, contribute to a positive school climate, and maintain healthy and professional relationships. To do this effectively, provide regular training and discussion and employ different training modalities to ensure the content remains fresh and employees have multiple ways to understand critical content. Also, keep in mind that those directly involved in responding to reports of abuse must receive specialized training in the areas of trauma and survivor resilience. 

The following topics should be included in employee training:

Student Training

Students must be equipped with tools and information to keep themselves and their peers safe. The content and format of training will vary depending on the age of students, and it is important to make sure that all content is age-appropriate. Some of the following topics apply only to older students. Training for students should generally cover these topics:

Board Training

Board members may be involved in supporting school leadership when incidents of abuse and misconduct occur.  It’s therefore essential that all Board members understand the logic behind using a survivor-informed approach to responding to reports of abuse.  Particularly, recognizing that using a trauma-informed lens and survivor-informed approach is not just the best approach morally, it’s also the most financially-responsible way to handle incidents.  

We also know that when Heads of School and Boards are aligned on this approach, incidents require less time, professional advice, and survivor remuneration.  Learning Courage recommends that Heads of School and Board Chairs (and any related committees) should be properly trained. 

Parent and Guardian Training

We recommend that your school offer optional training and informational sessions to parents and guardians. Parent/guardian training is useful for many reasons. It can help parents/guardians understand risks and the ways they can help keep their kids safe. Training also serves as an opportunity to educate parents/guardians about your school’s expectations for students and approach to student safety. It can be an opportunity to open dialogue between parents/guardians and children, particularly if the training is coordinated. Lastly, training sessions can serve to support parents/guardians as they navigate how to care for children in these complex times—this includes how to parent in this technologically advanced era, strategies and tips for communicating with children and teens, etc. These training sessions should include information about:

Finding the Right Trainers

It is crucial that those conducting training sessions are qualified and experienced. Learning Courage provides training and we encourage you to ask your member representative for help identifying trainers that meet your needs.

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) :


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.

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.


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.)


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.  


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.

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.

Employee Handbook

Employees make up the foundation of your school. They have roles that are important and valuable to promoting the climate, environment, and experiences that can positively change student’s lives. Your expectations for all employees should be clearly articulated in your school’s employee handbook. 

The employee handbook conveys your school’s unique culture and expectations for all employees. It is also a critical tool for reinforcing your school’s mission, statement of purpose for employees, and overall commitment to student well-being and safety. This must include setting very clear expectations about establishing and maintaining safe and appropriate boundaries with students in all interactions, including on-campus, off-campus, and in all communications. Similar to our recommendations for the student handbook, all employees must affirm that they have read and will uphold the requirements outlined in the handbook.  Employees should discuss handbook guidelines related to sexual misconduct and understand the resources and their responsibilities around keeping students safe. These actions are crucial to reducing sexual misconduct and abuse at your school and helping to build a culture of healthy relationships.

Be as specific as possible in your explanation of terms and expectations. While your school may not want its employee handbook linked on the website, at a minimum your school should use the website to clearly define employee conduct expectations and hiring processes.  Consider reinforcing these details in student or employee-led discussions to reinforce these important rules and resources. Providing examples in your handbook of behaviors that support healthy relationships will set expectations of appropriate conduct. Understanding the role you want the employee handbook to play in your school community will help guide your decisions about what you want to include.  

Employee handbooks should consist of but not be limited to: 

Acknowledge and Understanding of Material

To abide by it, employees must read and understand the content in the handbook. In order to ensure employees have done this, your school can require that every year employees acknowledge in writing they have read and will adhere to the details outlined in the handbook. However, just signing their names indicating they have read the handbook is not enough. Employees should also be given the opportunity to reflect on and ask questions regarding any policy and procedure that applies to them. Learning Courage encourages these opportunities for discussion to occur more than once throughout the school year in order to ensure proper learning and growth. Workshops or advisory circles are another venue where students and employees can discuss the handbook before signing their acknowledgment of the content. All of these actions will help employees understand what they are agreeing to and shift school culture in real and meaningful ways. See more information regarding employees affirming their knowledge in the handbook in the “Prevention and Training” section. 


Employees are expected to maintain healthy boundaries with their students. Outlining the boundaries and expectations for how to maintain them should be addressed in the employee handbook and in training sessions. There is a lot of nuance to scenarios that occur on school campuses that can make things feel confusing to employees, therefore it is essential for employees to discuss healthy boundaries and various scenarios to help solidify understanding of boundaries and what constitutes an unhealthy or inappropriate boundary. For more information on boundaries see the “Signs and Symptoms” and “Prevention and Training” sections. 

Electronic Communications with Students

It is well documented that the rise of social media, cell phone use, and remote learning presents very complicated areas of communication between adults and students at school. Social media and technology can be particularly challenging because apps and behaviors around them change rapidly, making it difficult to keep up.  Creating policies and procedures regarding your school’s expectations for employees’ engagement in electronic communication with students is crucial to creating a transparent and safe campus. Updating these policies each year will help you keep up with appropriate policy changes. In the end, you will need to make policy decisions based on your school culture and the direction you want to lead your school. This has become much more important with the Covid-19 pandemic in ‘20-’21. For information regarding Online Sexual Misconduct and Abuse as well as Best Practices for Remote Learning see the “Signs and Symptoms” section. 

Employee Assistance

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) can and will cover more than just services related to sexual misconduct and abuse. Their services can range from financial advice to counseling. It is critical though, that these programs have services related to sexual misconduct and abuse for your employees. Your school should check to be sure that your employee assistance program, which is offered through your insurance company, includes support for employees involved in sexual misconduct and abuse incidents. In addition, it is important for employees to be informed of what services are available to them through the school’s employee assistance program. For more information on supportive services see the “Supportive Services” section.

Hiring Process

School employees usually move into, out of, and between many different institutions throughout their careers. The turnover of employees at schools occurs for a multitude of reasons. Because employees are coming to schools from a variety of places, your school should be ready to engage in a thorough review of a prospective employee's previous experiences. The hiring process and structure at your school should be centered around checking each and every prospective employee with rigor, documentation, and honesty. One way to engage in transparent background checks is through the use of a third-party company or organization that does not have direct ties to your school. Each state has its own unique laws regarding the background check process which your school needs to comply with. On top of your legal requirements, there are ethical components to who you hire. 

Reference checking must be done carefully and the same process should be used for all hires. This includes using both state and federal databases, asking the same questions of references, and saving notes from this process in all personnel files. In addition, should a potential employee not list an upper-level administrator on a reference list, the hiring manager should still check in with those in leadership at previous places of employment to check in on the potential employee’s reputation and conduct. See more information in the “Hiring and Firing” section. 


Employee dismissals are challenging at schools no matter what the cause. Your school should create a plan for how you will proceed after an employee is dismissed. This plan should be structured for many reasons, but one main reason is for your school to be prepared for the aftermath of dismissing an employee regarding sexual misconduct and abuse. Consider if your school will give letters of reference to dismissed employees for any reason, and what your school’s obligation is as the last place of employment for the dismissed employee. Our recommendation is that if the dismissed employee requests a reference, they must also give you permission to disclose why they were dismissed. 

On and Off Duty Behavior 

The expectation that an employee is committed to student and community safety is not limited to their time in the classroom. An employee is expected to be a good steward of the school even if they are off school grounds. Transparent expectations will guide your employees to better serve their students as well as to better the institution as a whole. Some examples of policies and procedures that can be expanded on in this part of the handbook include but are not limited to: 

Policy on Sexual Harassment

Harassment policies have been integrated into many employee handbooks and continue to evolve with new laws and legislation. Including a sexual harassment policy in your handbook might be required by law depending on where your school is located.  Regardless of whether it is required by law, including a sexual harassment policy will promote a healthy and safe environment for employees to do their best work. Employees who experience sexual harassment should be given clear guidelines on how and to whom to report. For more information regarding employee reporting options, see Learning Courage’s “Reporting Requirements” page. Your school can consider what types of services it will provide such as whistleblower and anti-retaliation policies and services. The rights of employees, in general, should be clearly stated in the handbook regarding all aspects of policy. 

Policy on Sexual Misconduct and Abuse

Sexual misconduct and abuse differ from sexual harassment. The two are related, but sexual misconduct and abuse should have a separate policy from sexual harassment in the handbook. By separating these topics, your school will be able to show its commitment to the wide array of sexual violence that can occur, how they manifest, and how they are handled. Like a policy on harassment, policies on misconduct and abuse should include clear guidance on who and how to report. It is crucial that the rights of reporting and responding parties be transparent and accessible in order to show your unwavering commitment to survivors of misconduct and abuse as well as signaling your school’s commitment to creating a safe learning environment and healthy school culture. 

Prevention and Training

Training employees on how to combat sexual misconduct and abuse is key in having employees actively engage in the task of identifying and reducing misconduct and abuse at your school. The handbook should include a statement of your school’s commitment to training employees.  Training should vary from year to year to cover different topics and provide multiple opportunities to learn and discuss these topics. For more information see the “Prevention and Training” section.  

Reporting Requirements

Reporting requirements for employees at schools vary by state. Your school should be educated on and practice the most up-to-date laws on reporting where your school is located. The responsibilities of employees regarding reporting requirements and expectations should be outlined in your school’s employee handbook. There are many different companies that run anonymous reporting and whistleblower services. These services can be utilized by both employees and students who might face or be aware of sexual harassment, misconduct, or abuse at the school. For more information see the “Reporting Requirements” section. 

Supervision and Evaluation

Supervising and evaluating the development of the employees at your school will help your school reinforce your commitment to establishing and maintaining a safe environment for everyone within the school community while promoting professional growth and learning. The process of supervising and evaluating your employees must be well documented. Your school should pay particular attention to documenting evaluations and must include details of any conduct concerns and corrective actions by the school (i.e., placing an employee on leave, dismissing an employee, etc.) Documenting these details and having employees sign these evaluations is an important way to address concerning behavior and minimize the risk of employee retaliation. 


Employee handbooks are made for employees, but other audiences might be interested in the content they provide. Consider whether your employee handbook - or key portions of it - will be made available to the public or even posted on your website. You must be honest and authentic in your reasoning for either decision as it relates to your school’s culture. Regardless of the decision your school makes, the level of detail you include in your policies and the ease of access to all sends a message to employees and the broader community about your commitment to community safety. 

Transparency makes a statement and reinforces that you have clear expectations, guidelines, and consequences for attitudes and behavior at your school and you intend to hold all employees accountable for upholding those standards.  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. 

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

Historic Misconduct and Abuse

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

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

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

Reluctance to Confront Historic Misconduct and Abuse

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

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

Leadership Alignment

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

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

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

Equating Lack of Reports to Lack of Historic Misconduct and Abuse

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

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

Steps Toward Creating a Safe Environment for Survivors to Report

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

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

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

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

Unprompted Reports

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

Keeping Records

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

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

Finding an Investigator

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

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

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

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

Time Frame

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

 Leadership Changes

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Different audiences:

How to Interact with Survivors During an Investigation

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

Information Privileges

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

Respecting the Wishes of Survivors

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

Providing a 3rd Party Survivor Liaison

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

Handling Investigation Findings

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

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

Common Steps Toward Healing

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

Supporting Survivors

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

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

These five things should be put into action by your school regardless of whether the individual perpetrator is willing to apologize and accept responsibility for their actions. For more information, see Learning Courage’s “Commitment to Student Safety and Well Being.” For specific ways your school can support survivors, see “Supportive Services for Alumni” on Learning Courage’s “Supportive Services” page.

Restorative Justice when Addressing Historic Misconduct and Abuse

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

Arbitration and Legal Services for Survivors

Generally, your school does not have a responsibility to provide arbitration and legal services to survivors of historic misconduct and abuse. In many cases, this service is counterproductive both to the survivor and to your school. A survivor is not likely to trust an attorney assigned to them by your school, and it is against your school’s interest to provide legal services to a survivor who may choose to take action against your institution. Also, your school may not have the resources to commit to funding legal services for survivors. It should be noted that some schools have considered offering legal services in the past, so it is an option if your institution has the will and means. However, your school does not have an obligation to do so.

Committed Response to Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do Not Solely Focus on Your Legal Obligations

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

A Note on Post-Investigation Communication

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

Help the Community Heal

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

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

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