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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.