Best Practices In Sexual Misconduct Policies and Procedures

Our goal at Learning Courage is not to simply summarize the content on various topics related to sexual misconduct in schools. We aim instead to identify what we believe are the best practices schools should follow. We believe that having a survivor-centric, trauma-informed, compassionate approach to sexual abuse and misconduct will best help schools mitigate harm and promote healing for both survivors and school communities while also requiring the fewest resources to address.

We hope you will find this information useful for your school and see how, by considering our recommendations, members will have the benefit of understanding how to establish and maintain practices that maximize both school and student safety.

Our approach and philosophy are centered around the belief that it will require our collective wisdom and ongoing effort to improve how we address and reduce sexual misconduct and abuse.

Learning Courage believes that it is critical to have easily accessible information on school websites regarding sexual misconduct and sexual assault.

Schools across the nation have been scrutinized and criticized by the media for their response to sexual misconduct and abuse. Collectively, we have both an obligation and an opportunity to teach and lead on this complex and critical issue facing our youth. Your school’s website is one of your most powerful marketing tools. It is also where prospective families, current families, prospective faculty/staff, educators, and other visitors can learn about your school’s values and priorities. Families and alumni are looking to see if you are proactively addressing issues of sexual misconduct and creating safe learning and working environments for students, where clear expectations and guidelines are outlined. We believe it is best to make this content both easy to find and understand because doing so demonstrates confidence and a commitment to student safety. Learning requires safety.

Too often fear is what inhibits schools from making the courageous decisions needed to address sexual misconduct and abuse directly and compassionately. In reality, fear tends to drive schools and school leaders to make poor decisions that ultimately create more harm – often unintentionally – to people and institutions. Our strong belief is that having a survivor-centric, direct, and compassionate approach to sexual misconduct and abuse helps mitigate harm and promotes healing, not just for those harmed but also for the broader community.

Below you will find a list of what we believe to be the best-in-class practices in policies and procedures related to sexual misconduct and abuse. They are best practices because they meet our priorities of leadership and community safety, and they are survivor-centric. They set clear expectations for students and help build trust with your existing school community and with prospective families

Observed Best Practices

Organizational Alignment

Perhaps the most important observation of schools that have protracted and lingering challenges around sexual misconduct and abuse is that it stems from a lack of leadership alignment between the Board and the School’s administrative leadership. Responding well to reports of misconduct and abuse requires advance planning and discussion. This discussion should start with Board leadership and include topics such as overall approach and philosophy. Waiting to have these discussions when forced to respond to an emergency significantly reduces the opportunity to achieve and maintain alignment. The consequences of failed leadership alignment (human, reputational and financial) can be staggering.

Policy Adherence

While we highlight these as best practices, it is important to note that following practices you have established are even more important than documenting excellent policies. And having the “ideal” best practices alone cannot protect your school or the students from harm. The combination of establishing best-in-class policies and procedures AND following them is the best way to protect everyone in the school community while also minimizing risk to the institution. Following established policies will not only reduce your risk but will also establish credibility and trust among the school community. The opposite is true if policies and procedures are not followed.

Easy to Find

Content on policies and procedures may be found in different places on your school’s website. Making content easy to find demonstrates both your commitment to student safety and your confidence and integrity around the work you have done. Think of different audiences and where they would expect to find the information. Minimize the number of clicks the user has to make to get there.

Warm and Accepting Tone

Policies and procedures are for students and for adults. They should be easy to understand and written in language that is free of legal jargon. The tone should be similar to that of a caring adult communicating to a student in a matter-of-fact way about important information that will keep the student safe. Policies and procedures are designed for safety not to scare students. The information should be easy to understand for readers of all ages.

Thorough

We believe that more information is better than less. Some schools take the approach that “less is more” when writing policies and procedures. This may give schools more flexibility to handle incidents differently, according to nuance and context. However, the lack of clarity also leaves room for interpretation from all readers and therefore increases the likelihood of confusion. We believe it also can be perceived as a lack of commitment to the work required to keep your community safe.

Clear and Concise

Don’t over-complicate the information in the name of being thorough. The important thing to remember is that the information should include content that is required by law, information that is relevant and specific to your school, and also details that come from peer schools that could also be relevant at your school. 

Specific insight into how to demonstrate your school’s confidence and commitment to strong policies and procedures are outlined in the section below.

Website

As stated above, we believe it should be easy to find information about your school’s policies and procedures on your website. When people type in “sexual misconduct,” “sexual assault,” “sexual abuse,” or “historic misconduct and abuse” on your school’s website, they should be directed to a page that gives them the following links or information. 

  1. Demonstrated Commitment to Student Safety and Well-Being

We recommend that schools dedicate a section of your website to demonstrating your active commitment to student safety and well-being. Particularly in these volatile times where students are experiencing many forms of abuse, harassment and misconduct (not just sexual), community members need to know the school’s commitment to student safety and well-being. You can demonstrate this commitment in many different ways.  What is equally important is to ensure that your school follows stated practices and policies. 

We recommend that all schools have a thoughtfully worded statement about how they care about the safety and well-being of everyone. In this section, often under the “Health and Wellness” section of the website, your school should outline the culture and values you work to sustain. Include how you educate and train students on prevention and response to sexual abuse and misconduct. You may also identify how your school supports various constituents (different divisions where applicable, students, parents, faculty/staff, etc.). Because of ongoing national concerns about adult/student abuse, it is essential that your school establish and follow rigorous hiring practices, including conducting national background checks, training for new employees and ongoing professional development for faculty and staff. By outlining your hiring and training practices for faculty and staff for all to see, your school shows prospective employees, parents, and others how much care you put into maintaining the health and safety of your community.

See Learning Courage’s page on “Commitment to Student Safety and Well-Being” for more information. 

  1. Sexual Misconduct and Abuse Policy

Every school must have an overarching sexual misconduct statement. A general philosophy is first establishing a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual abuse and misconduct.

The goals of the policy should include:

  • Educating the community (faculty, staff, students, parents/guardians) about sexual misconduct, including training programs
  • Outlining key reporting mechanisms
  • Publishing contact information for key individuals on campus responsible for responding to and reporting incidents
  • Establishing protocols for investigating reports of misconduct
  • Defining consequences of sexual misconduct and discipline
  • Providing information on confidentiality, retaliation, immunity, sanctuary, mandatory reporting, and other key policies and resources
  • Outlining hiring policies
  • Outlining safety and support structures

It can also be helpful to articulate specific policies regarding different groups on your campus: High/Upper School, Middle School, Employees for example. 

  1. Create and Name an Oversight Committee Handling Sexual Abuse and Misconduct

Handling cases of sexual abuse and misconduct are incredibly delicate, complex, and time-consuming. They require proper training and expertise for those involved. Therefore, every school should have a separate committee from the regular discipline committee for handling cases of sexual misconduct. The composition of this committee will probably vary from school to school, but it often includes the Head of School, designated Deans, School Counselor, Division Director (where appropriate), School Nurse, designated communications person, Title IX coordinator (where applicable), and Human Resources Officer.  Some oversight committees include the Board Chair, depending on the kind of misconduct, and legal counsel. 

  1. Supportive Services on Campus

Bringing claims of sexual assault and abuse forward can be scary. It is important that the students and adults in the community know that your institution cares about them and wants to hear what happened to them, investigate the reports and provide any necessary support for those involved. Therefore, it is critical that you outline the process for reporting in a clear and compassionate manner, and you identify those designated individuals who are available and accessible to hear reports of misconduct and abuse. 

For those requiring medical help, counseling support, academic or housing modifications, these details should be listed under Supportive Services on campus. This information should also be included in the Health and Wellness section of your school’s website. 

Decision trees are also effective for students and other community members because they visually convey a process and the possible outcomes. Decision trees can help inform and guide students and can be useful for understanding when to use anonymous reporting, how to seek medical or mental health support. The lists of support should include but are not limited to: administrators involved with the misconduct committee, School counselor, School nurse, Deans of students, and more. To make it easy to get the necessary help, cell phone or other monitored phone numbers should be included. Those responsible for fielding calls must be appropriately trained. See the “Supportive Services” section for a sample graphic that should be readily accessible at all schools.

In this section of the website, it is helpful to define confidentiality, mandated reporting, immunity, and sanctuary policies so the reporting party is aware. Decision trees can be helpful here as well.

In addition to immunity and sanctuary policies, schools often have other policies in place that support students who might be struggling, not only as it relates to sexual misconduct and abuse. These supports might include the ability to have some academic modifications if performance begins to slip, the ability to switch classes if the alleged perpetrator is in the same class, the ability to shift housing or living circumstances, and the opportunity to take a leave of absence to name a few. 

See Learning Courage’s page on “Supportive Services” for more information. 

  1. Incident Reduction and Training

A critical element of reducing incidents of sexual misconduct and abuse on school campuses is having a robust education, incident reduction, and training program at your school. There are many constituents at schools and the reduction and training should be designed specifically for each constituency: students, parents/guardians, faculty, staff, and trustees. These should be adapted annually and based on overarching strategic goals established by the school based on best practices.

See Learning Courage’s page on “Prevention and Training” for more information. 

  1. Reporting Sexual Misconduct and Abuse

Reporting sexual misconduct and abuse can be scary and intimidating, not only because the reporting party may be traumatized by the event, but also because the reporting party is likely also concerned about all of the unknowns and possible implications that arise with reporting. To reduce some of these unknowns, it is critical that schools are specific about who victims/survivors can go to if they are concerned about abuse, what the school’s commitment is to its community, what resources are available to victims/survivors both on and off-campus, and how they will be supported. For example, stating that a student should go to a “trusted adult” assumes that there is an obvious choice for that student. It also assumes that the adult they choose has been trained in how to handle a report. Most schools have a School Counselor (some have a Title IX Coordinator/Wellness Coordinator) who is trained to notice and respond to abuse. However, we recommend there be a few others on campus who are trained as well.  Best to be specific here, rather than general. Providing helpful options is also useful, as long as the list is not too long or confusing.

Reporting options should be highlighted in multiple places including, but not limited to, the school’s website, the student handbook, and the employee handbook. The most important thing is to have supportive, easy-to-follow instructions for students, knowing it is scary to consider reporting. Guidelines on how or when to report to authorities should also be included. Examples include decision trees or a whistleblower hotline like EthicsPoint or Lighthouse that is completely confidential and available 24 hours a day.

See Learning Courage’s page on “Reporting Requirements” for more information. 

  1. Investigating and Responding to Current Reports of Misconduct and Abuse

Any incidents of sexual misconduct, assault and abuse seriously impact your school community. Often there are strong emotions, conflicting stories, and complex dynamics involved in these cases. Because you are in the business of caring for student safety and well-being, it is critical that the process used to investigate and respond to reports of misconduct and abuse be clearly outlined, survivor-centric and trauma-informed. This clarity allows the administrators and students to follow clear protocols that focus on maintaining the strong values and standards of your school while also minimizing further unintentional harm. Investigations and responses to reports of sexual misconduct and abuse are time-consuming and emotionally intense processes, so it is very important that those involved are trained and know the protocols to follow.

It is also important that your school outlines how it will handle and resolve claims of sexual misconduct, assault, and abuse. There is a range in the level of detail provided by schools. The most important things to consider are:

  1. Differentiating the investigation process from your typical discipline process since these incidents require training for those involved and should not include students
  2. Outlining your process clearly
  3. Adhering to your process

See Learning Courage’s page on “Investigations & Responding Practices” for more information. 

  1. Historic Misconduct and Abuse

Like misconduct that happens in your school today, historic misconduct and abuse are tragic.  And yet, it’s often more complicated because the individuals likely differ in their healing, and it’s easier to leave it up to those harmed to make a report than it is to be proactive and not know what you will find. 

Unfortunately, there is a high likelihood that, whether or not it was previously reported, your school has some history that includes sexual abuse. These incidents are painful and incredibly complicated to handle well because there are so many elements involved: human/emotional, legal, institutional, and systemic. And yet, one thing is clear: addressing these incidents with integrity and empathy provides an opportunity to heal those who have been harmed while also bringing your school community closer.  

We have complete sections for both reporting and investigating misconduct and abuse, so we do not go into these details here.  The links below lead to those sections with more complete information.

  1. Crisis Response Guide

Every school needs to have a protocol for responding to reports of sexual misconduct or abuse. Part of that response includes providing emergency support for both the reporting and responding party. If the reporting party requires medical attention, the following should be identified and known to all those responsible for the student’s care:

  • A clinic/hospital identified that the student will be taken to
  • An individual/role who will accompany the student
  • A defined list of procedures and actions that must be completed while that person remains with the student. 
  • When and how to contact parents/guardians

In addition, you need to have a trained resource for emergency emotional support for all students involved. This is important because it will help minimize the additional trauma for the reporting party and will provide a source of information closest to the event. Providing a trained resource in this process also allows you to have documented memories of the experience for both the reporting and responding parties, which will be important for those involved in assessing the findings.  Lastly, this trained person will increase the likelihood that policies and procedures have been followed.  

When an individual reports an incident, you must determine if the school is obligated to report these allegations to the authorities. State laws vary, but we recommend that, if warranted, reporting should be made by the school’s designated mandated reporter, if they have one. For some schools, this person is called a “Wellness Coordinator”. Regardless of their title, all faculty and staff must know who this individual is and how to contact them. In some states, all faculty/staff are mandated reporters so it is critical that those steps are outlined for the community.

See Learning Courage’s page on “Crisis Response Guide” for more information. 

  1. Student Handbook

Every school has a student handbook which contains critical information about the school’s values, standards, expectations, and policies. We recommend that schools include an electronic version of their student handbook on their website. Every school should require students to read the student handbook at the beginning of each academic year and to confirm with their signature that they have read and agree to abide by the policies laid out in the handbook. 

In addition to reading and confirming they have reviewed the handbook, we recommend that sections related to topics such as sexual misconduct and abuse be reviewed and discussed in advisory teams or some other small group. These steps establish a greater understanding of the practical application of behavior expectations than if only reading the handbook is required. 

Schools should update their handbooks annually.

Topics to cover in your school’s Handbook related to sexual misconduct and abuse:

Define key terms and policies: See Learning Courage’s “Definition of Terms” for complete descriptions of these terms

  • Dating Violence
  • Sexual Assault
  • Sexual Exploitation: Include a description of technological exploitation.
  • Sexual Harassment and Hostile Environment
  • Stalking
  • Statutory Rape
  • Prohibition of Sexual Relationships Between Students and Employees
  • Consent
  • Confidentiality: Be sure to include the limitations of confidentiality, especially with respect to mandated reporting
  • Privacy: While it may not be possible to ensure complete privacy regarding reports of sexual abuse and misconduct, schools can establish practices that respect student privacy. This includes keeping investigations on a “Need to know” basis.
  • Discrimination
  • Bullying
  • Hazing
  • Incapacitation

Reporting Complaints: Provide options for students to report misconduct. See “Reporting Sexual Misconduct and Abuse” above.

Responses to Complaints: Include an overview of the protocol the school uses to respond to reports of misconduct. See “Investigating and Responding to Current Reports of Misconduct and Abuse” above.

Victim Services and Accommodations: Include resources and referrals for immediate and ongoing assistance. See “Supportive Services.”

Mandated Reporting: Define the responsibilities of all mandated reporters and identify who is considered a mandated reporter. This varies by state, so consult your state laws to understand these specifics.

Age of Consent: The age of consent is different by state and is a significant detail when it comes to mandated reporting. Since this is a legal issue, which also may conflict with actual behavior, it’s critical to define in advance how you handle these conflicts.

Responding party: An individual who is accused of sexual misconduct or abuse according to a report, also referred to as the accused or respondent. We use “responding party” in our materials because it is more neutral than the other terms used. 

Reporting party: An individual who reports they were the victim of sexual misconduct or abuse, also referred to as a survivor. We use “reporting party” in our materials because it is more neutral than the other terms used. Therefore, we use “reporting party” in our materials.

Retaliation: The reporting party may be at risk of retaliation from the accused. This may include intimidation and, if the accused is a person of power within the school, a student could be subjected to uncalled for discipline and punishment. Retaliation is wrong and unlawful. Consult federal and state laws and establish a protocol for protecting reporting students against retaliation.

See Learning Courage’s page “Student Handbook” and “Definition of Terms” for more information. 

  1. Employee Handbook

Like the student handbook, your school should update its employee handbook annually and should include an outline of employee conduct expectations. While some schools may not want their employee handbook linked on their website, at a minimum the school should use the website to clearly define employee conduct expectations, hiring processes, and background checks.

Employee handbooks should also include the topics aforementioned in the Student Handbook Section. It is crucial that employee handbooks are equipped with the most recent and up-to-date reporting requirements for the state in which the school is located.

Employee handbooks should consist of but not be limited to:

  • Thorough information on the hiring process: Provide information on background checks and reference checks for all applicants.
  • Information on training and education of their employees: Topics that require training may include boundaries and communication.
  • Information on reporting and mandatory reporting laws as well as continued education for employees regarding mandated reporting: Many employees will be considered mandated reporters, and they must understand their legal and moral obligation to act if they know of or suspect abuse or misconduct.
  • Clearly outlined employee conduct expectations: Articulate what interactions are considered appropriate with students as well as with colleagues. 
  • Resources for employees if they are a victim/survivor of abuse or harassment in the workplace: Specify what services are provided by the school for employees to utilize. 
  • Describe what will happen if an employee is a responding party to an allegation of misconduct or abuse: What support do they get? Will they be suspended during an investigation? What will the investigation proceeding look like?
  • Resources for employees to report if they suspect another employee is engaging in boundary violations or predatory behavior: Who do they report it to? What support do they get in the process? What are the school’s retaliation policies? 

See Learning Courage’s page “Employee Handbook” for more information. 

  1. Communication

Communication around incidents of sexual misconduct and abuse is delicate. Most current cases can’t be discussed because of confidentiality. However, your school should be prepared ahead of time with a crisis communication plan, especially for situations where the news media are involved. Similarly, sometimes cases of current sexual misconduct, assault, and abuse become “public” around campus and you will need a communication strategy to address that possibility. 

In the case of communication, it’s important to differentiate between internal communication and external communication.  In the context of sexual misconduct and abuse, we refer to internal communications as within the current school community.  This includes faculty, staff, students, and their parents/guardians.  External communications in the context of our work refer to information sent to alumni.  This external communication is often posted on school websites and therefore should be considered information that could be included in media coverage. Press releases and creating talking points for responding to media are also external communication.

Incidents related to existing students should not be communicated internally or externally unless details are reported and carried in the media. 

In the case of historic abuse, it is essential that you include someone with communications expertise to advise you through the process. Investigations typically take months and can last longer than a year.  Providing updates to your community throughout an investigation, once you receive the findings from the report and continuing as you respond to findings requires care and regular attention.

Doing this well requires transparency in sharing details.  It’s also important to identify steps your school is taking to address the historic abuse and prevent further injury or harm to the current community.  Lastly but also critical you must communicate specific details of how your school is supporting those who were harmed. These are all essential for schools and their communities to heal. 

See Learning Courage’s page on “Communication Guidelines” and “Historic Misconduct and Abuse” for more information. 

  1. Support for Alumni

Schools are committed to many constituents: current students, parents/guardians, employees, alumni, and more. When schools are affected by historic misconduct and abuse, they are faced with many hard decisions that impact their community. One of those decisions is how best to support the alumni who are victims/survivors of that abuse. It is not easy to sort out these decisions as there are human, financial, legal, and institutional priorities. However, regardless of your school's stature or financial position, it is critical that your response be survivor-centered and trauma-informed. Too often fear drives these critical decisions and subsequently, your school can unintentionally do more harm to the survivors and the greater community.  Every school is different in their capacity to provide financial support for alumni survivors, but you should consider what support you want to offer to their alumni: counseling, survivor advocates, legal mediation assistance through independent investigators and arbitrators, a place for alumni to come together for healing and more. 

See Learning Courage’s page on “Historic Misconduct and Abuse” and “Communication Guidelines” for more information. 

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