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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.