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: 

  • If you do not have a communications resource at your school, identify a communications professional to help create a Crisis Communications Plan and designate members of school staff who will serve on a Response Team with the communications professional, legal counsel, and other advisors as needed. 
  • Also, it is important to designate at least one representative from the Board, usually the Board Chair, to provide leadership and oversight for communications planning, and to incorporate Board review into the communications plan.
  • Know the laws and implications related to individuals’ privacy. Your school’s legal counsel should help you with this.  Whether you are dealing with minors or allegations against employees that have not been investigated, maintaining the privacy of individuals, to the greatest extent allowable by law, is essential.
  • Make sure that sexual misconduct response is included in your school’s Crisis Communications Plan.
  • Be proactive: communicate what you can within your community first before any information is reported in the press. This also pertains to making sure that relevant school policies and procedures are widely known, publicly available, and regularly communicated, and that relevant training on both policy and process is conducted for all faculty and staff.
  • It is essential that the school speak with a single voice on these matters, so the school should make it clear to all staff who, if anyone, is authorized to speak externally.  If different people communicate externally and their messages are inconsistent, that will harm the school’s credibility and its ability to manage the situation.  Speaking with a single voice requires including someone with a strong communications background (internal or external) and ideally training in trauma from the onset of the issue through its conclusion.
  • Be empathetic and warm while also being decisive in protecting those alleging harm and working with those parties (law enforcement, healthcare, legal, etc.) involved in determining the response. 
  • Focus on the safety of students. Any perceived defensiveness or posturing that protects the institution is counterproductive.  
  • Ensure the specific actions for responding to reports of sexual misconduct, abuse or violence meet federal and state requirements and follow school policies.
  • Provide a copy of the Communications Plan to all those involved in supporting the plan and its execution.
  • Meet with those involved in the process at least annually to re-visit and update the Communications Plan. 

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. 

  • Student-on-student misconduct will require a communications plan that maintains the privacy rights of any minors involved. This can be particularly challenging in school communities. Knowing what and when to communicate with law enforcement, healthcare professionals, and parents is essential. Seeking legal advice is highly recommended.
  • With reports of employee-on-student abuse, protecting the privacy of those involved in the incident is important.  However, the safety and security of the community are the highest priority. If specific action is taken to remove adults or place them on leave, it is still essential to refrain from communicating specific details of the allegations within the school community. Law enforcement and/or a third-party firm will need to conduct their investigation, which can be done faster and more effectively when the public is not aware of the incident.  Establishing and maintaining relationships with local law enforcement is essential so that you know who your contact is and how to work with them. 
    • If law enforcement decides to investigate, no communication should happen without their knowledge and approval. 
    • If there is an inquiry, the general message should be that you cannot comment on a current investigation.  
    • If there is a specific finding, whether, through law enforcement or an internal investigation, you should coordinate with everyone involved to ensure that the school community is informed about the incident before details are shared with news sources. 

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.  

  • In cases of historic abuse, your school should create a timetable for regular communication and share that timetable with the community. A suggested timeframe for updates is approximately every 3 months. Communicating more frequently may create communication “fatigue” and potential frustration due to less information to share while having more time between updates can create the impression that the work is not a priority.  In some instances, you may consider creating an opt-in system for updates to allow those interested to receive updates while also respecting the wishes of those who do not want to receive updates on the topic. Broad communication facilitates transparency and healing and can allow your school to rebuild trust within your community. Your school will also need to communicate with the current community about the key steps you are taking and your findings.

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.

  • Student-on-Student Sexual Misconduct and Abuse

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.

  • Employee-on-Student Sexual Misconduct and Abuse

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:

  • Commitment to student safety and well-being: Communicate your unwavering commitment to keeping students safe and provide details of what is done to ensure the school community’s safety.
  • Humility and accountability: Acknowledge that, despite efforts to keep students safe, it is possible that there have been incidents of abuse from the past. Recognize the challenge of disclosing abuse. Establishing a “safe” way for those who were harmed to disclose their experience increases the chances of uncovering incidents. While there is some risk to the school with every additional report, handling these reports with empathy and care mitigates this risk dramatically.
  • Clarity: Provide multiple contact options for individuals to disclose information about their abuse and details of how the school plans to conduct these investigations. Those considering whether to report their abuse will want to understand how they will be cared for, including whether their privacy will be protected and who will be involved in the process of collecting information. Include a third-party reporting option to ensure that survivors feel safe reporting, and also provide an option to contact law enforcement. If there is a task force, you should share the composition and objectives of this group. It is important for anyone receiving the calls from survivors to be trained properly to respond with a survivor-centric, trauma-informed focus.

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:

  • Ongoing Interest: Include information on where members of the school community can share any information they have about historic abuse and where they can direct questions or concerns. Even if your school has reached the end of an investigation, you should still reiterate that your school is ready to respond to and support any new reports of historic misconduct.
  • Transparency: Throughout the investigation process, the school should update the community about their investigations and findings, as appropriate,  to rebuild trust. This includes information about who is conducting the investigations and if any of these allegations include current employees.
  • An apology: If there has been a finding, it is important for the school to express its concern regarding, and to take responsibility for, a failure to protect students, even if this occurred under a previous administration. Acknowledging the pain that this information may surface within the community and recognizing the school’s past shortcomings, if appropriate, is instrumental for the healing of the community. Keep in mind that taking responsibility for failing to protect students may not be feasible in a broader letter to the community for legal reasons and should be carefully considered. 
  • Support for survivors: The school should acknowledge how difficult it can be to come forward with a report of sexual misconduct or abuse and how the school values and appreciates the courage of survivors. The school should also outline ways in which they plan to support survivors. See Learning Courage’s “Supportive Services” page for information on how your school can support survivors of historic abuse. 
  • A commitment to change: The school should outline the actions it is taking to support survivors as well as how it is working to ensure that its campus is safe for all students. This can include steps such as revising its sexual misconduct policies and procedures.

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. 

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info@learningcourage.org

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