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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Learning Courage membership gives your school timely, relevant and vital information about how to reduce sexual misconduct and respond appropriately to incidents when they do occur.