Incidents of existing student-on-student sexual misconduct and abuse can be incredibly difficult for any school community to handle. In many instances, there are strong emotions, conflicting accounts, confidentiality constraints, and important relationships where there is a great deal at stake. Physically and emotionally caring for the individuals involved during these moments is essential and often has to be done in concert with caring for the school and school community as well. In addition, there is an added challenge of maintaining privacy for those involved who are minors.
Investigation and Response Protocols
When dealing with investigating and responding to student-on-student sexual assault and abuse, it is important to support the emotional and physical wellbeing of the students while complying with laws, protecting privacy, and preserving evidence. All of this requires that you have a pre-established investigation and response protocol that is survivor-centric and trauma-informed. And these protocols must be followed.
To facilitate transparency, your investigations and responding protocols should be easy to find. These protocols should be included in your Sexual Misconduct Policy, the Employee and Student Handbooks, and your website. This information should also be included in your employee training so everyone on staff understands the details of the policy and the commitment to adhering to them so they can best help students.
There is variation between schools on the level of specificity when establishing and discussing investigation and response procedures. Regardless of the level of detail your school chooses to establish or disclose, your school must follow your documented protocols. To ensure this happens, we recommend that you form a specific committee, possibly called a response team, that is responsible for investigating and responding to reports of sexual misconduct and abuse. Members of this team should be trained and familiar with the protocols so that they are ready to respond promptly and consistently. For more specifics on the roles and compositions of response teams, see Learning Courage’s page on “School and Board Leadership.”
- Before Investigating
- Does your school have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that they should abide by? Many schools establish an MOU with their local police force which outlines agreements and reporting guidelines and protocols. Doing this helps build important relationships with local law enforcement, which leads to faster response and better care for reporting and responding parties. It also helps you comply with the law. If your school has an MOU with the police department, your response team should revisit it to ensure that the appropriate protocols are followed. We recommend that your school form an MOU with your local police department in order to be transparent about the roles/responsibilities of your school and the police department.
- In cases of historic abuse, think about how transparent you will be with the findings. This is a critical decision that impacts how the investigation may be conducted and the level of confidentiality that you are able to promise those participating in the investigation. It also informs how the report is written, since the investigating firm will identify individuals in the report differently if the report is going to be public. At Learning Courage, our position is that schools should plan to release the reports for any historic abuse investigations. While reports will never capture every detail that is known within the community, releasing the report is the best way to demonstrate a commitment to uncovering and addressing whatever community members are willing to share.
- What is the role of parents and legal guardians in the process and when will they be informed about a report? Consider how and when the parents/guardians of the reporting and responding party must be notified. Assess your legal obligation of when it is necessary to inform a parent or guardian about a report of sexual misconduct or abuse. After knowing your legal obligations which are critical to protecting your school, determine when you as a school want to involve parents/guardians in this important, sensitive situation. We recommend that your school proactively create a communications plan, detailing when, how, and by whom parents/guardians will be informed about a report. Doing this beforehand is critical.
- Who is communicated with and when? Depending on the type of abuse (student-on-student vs. educator/staff-on-student), your school will need to have a protocol for how and what to communicate with your school community. In most cases, you will be dealing with minors. Their privacy must be protected by law. We recommend that your school proactively create a communications plan for potential scenarios. We strongly recommend that you have someone who also specializes in communications and is trauma-informed (whether internal or external) and who is part of the committee addressing the incident. If they are not part of the committee, they should be advising the committee. See Learning Courage’s page on “Communications Guidelines.”
- Will the responding party, if it is a student, be allowed to withdraw from the school during an investigation? Some schools give responding parties the opportunity to withdraw from school before the investigation is complete. While there may be extenuating circumstances that would suggest this is the best action for the student to take, we believe that it is important for the school to discuss the pros and cons with the responding party and, more often than not, it is not the best option for a survivor. It can also interfere with the survivor’s ability to process and heal from the experience.
- How does your school plan to enforce policies against retaliation? Retaliation is unacceptable and must have consequences when it is discovered. This must be clearly noted in all policies and handbooks. Enforcing consequences for retaliation requires learning that it is happening. The best way to do this is to make sure everyone in the school community is aware of the policy, the consequences, and the process to report it. The community must also have confidence that any reports will be handled in a supportive manner for anyone involved in a report.
- How is privacy maintained? It is imperative throughout the investigation process to be respectful of privacy concerns, especially when concerning the victim so as not to exacerbate any trauma they may have from the incident. In addition, there are legal implications if you fail to protect an individual’s privacy. Check with your local laws and ensure that your policy complies with them.
- Who will conduct investigations into the reported allegation, and who will they interview? Your school should designate an individual or individuals to conduct an investigation into the reports. This individual will be responsible for interviewing the victim, the responding party, and the reporting party (if this person is not the victim) as well as other persons who may have relevant information. The investigator(s) must be appropriately trained in how to minimize trauma through their interviews and must also understand the impact of trauma on the behavior of those who have been harmed. At the end of an investigation, your protocol may require the investigator to prepare a written report of their findings. The investigator must be present during the Investigation Committee discussion to respond to questions and provide additional content that may not be detailed in the report.
- Do the people involved (reporting and responding parties and any others) get to have support during the investigation? For the sake of due process, both the reporting and responding party must receive similar support. Both individuals need assistance and care. Reporting parties need help navigating the choices they have to make. They also will have questions about talking with their parents or guardians. They will have questions about what support is available to them and what information they can share about the incident. If your school allows it, both parties should be informed that they have the right to submit a statement about the incident. And if one party submits a statement, the other party should be informed and be given time to also submit a statement. Those supporting each party must be trained to ensure they adhere to legal requirements and understand how to minimize further trauma for both parties. We recommend that your school proactively determine which individual(s), with training in sexual trauma, will be responsible for providing this support. It is also possible that either party might seek out some outside help, often therapeutic in nature.
- Where should parties direct their questions about the investigation process? To facilitate transparency, your school should provide a list of the contact information for administrators that parties can contact if they have any questions about the investigation. This information should be easy to find and in multiple places to facilitate involvement for those with information to share.
- Based on the findings of the investigation, who will make the next decisions? We recommend that your school form a specific committee or “response team” with the purpose of responding to allegations of student-on-student misconduct. There should be two separate response teams: one for responding to current student-on-student abuse and another, separate team for historic abuse and any current adult-on-student abuse. The team responding to current student-on-student abuse may include the Head of School, Dean of Students, Dean of Residential Life (if applicable), School Counselor, Division Director (where appropriate), School Nurse, and the Title IX Coordinator/Wellness Coordinator. The team for historic and adult-on-student abuse may include the Head of School, the Board Chair and one or two other Board members (possibly from the executive committee), and a trained counselor. It is important that all members of the teams have received trauma-informed training and are aware of how trauma can impact behaviors. This may help prevent additional trauma to the survivor. Based on the written report of the key findings of the investigation, your teams/committees will decide whether there has been a violation of the sexual misconduct policy or other school policies. For more specifics on the roles and compositions of each response team, see Learning Courage’s page on “School and Board Leadership.”
- Disciplinary Process
- Who will determine the disciplinary action plan? Your school will need to decide how the disciplinary process will work. Will the same sexual misconduct committee act as the discipline committee and form a recommended discipline action plan? Will the Head of School be responsible for determining the disciplinary action plan? We suggest any incident that includes sexual misconduct should not include current students in the disciplinary process. Therefore we suggest there is a separate committee from the regular Discipline Committee, if you have one, for matters of sexual misconduct and abuse. This helps protect the privacy of the individuals involved and ideally ensures more institutional consistency and professionalism.
- Who should be on this committee? This Committee must be composed of a well-balanced and integrated team that also understands the impact of trauma; they should be charged with either making a decision for discipline or providing a recommendation to the Head of School. The Committee, as a whole, is less likely to be influenced by powerful details such as family history/connection to the school, giving history or giving potential, athletic prowess, or some other element that must not have an impact on the finding. And ideally, the Head should be relieved of making the decision without these influences.
- Will there be a hearing before the Committee? This process can be terrifying for both the reporting and responding parties. While it is not appropriate for their parents or friends to participate directly with them throughout the process, it is very useful to provide a resource to each party who can answer questions and help them understand the process as they go through it. Will students be required to appear before the committee? Your school should outline the disciplinary process, including who is involved and how this leads to a decision. If you decide that the parties can appear before the committee, indicate information about who will appear before the committee and what information the committee will consider. Neither party should be allowed to have legal representation in front of the committee. It is also important for the individuals and their parents/guardians to understand the process and who is involved. Based on the information, your committee will form a recommended disciplinary action plan. You may also choose to designate a member of your committee to act as the secretary and record the proceedings and findings of the committee.
- Who will communicate the findings of the Committee? Once your committee has made a decision, you should designate an individual who will communicate the decision to the responding and reporting party. Consider whether the parents/guardians of either party (if they are students) will be notified and how you plan to contact them. Also, consider what information (if any) will be shared with the wider community depending on the findings. See “Communications Guidelines” for more information on how to communicate with the school community.
- After the Disciplinary Process
- Will there be an appeals option? Your school will need to decide if there will be an appeals process available to the reporting and responding party after the sanctions process. If there is an appeals process, you will need to inform both parties of how they can appeal and on what grounds (if there is new information, etc.). You will need to decide who will review the appeals and who will make the decisions based on the appeals. We recommend that your school’s process includes a way to appeal decisions and that the appeals process applies only when there is new information that was not previously heard, rather than re-hearing the same information.
Different Types of Investigations and Considerations
Depending on the type of report, your school will need to have an investigation and response protocol. Consider the following:
- Student-on-student assault/abuse: In these cases, both the responding and reporting party are likely minors. Regardless of the legal requirements to maintain confidentiality, it is important to maintain the confidentiality of both parties. The investigations and response protocols will need to consider how you plan to maintain confidentiality as well as how you plan to communicate with parents/guardians.
- Educator/Staff on student assault/abuse: In these cases, it is still necessary to maintain the confidentiality of any minors involved. It is also essential to protect the safety of all students. If there are allegations against a current educator, that person must be relieved of their teaching responsibilities until any investigation is complete. Including this in your communication plan is important.
- Educator/staff on educator/staff abuse: What does your Employee Handbook say? If you have a policy that outlines what is acceptable and not for relationships among faculty and staff, you must follow those guidelines. Mutually consensual relationships are generally considered normal and acceptable, but recognize the impact they can have (particularly in small school communities) when the relationship deteriorates. Your school should focus on healthy relationships, and relationships between adults are important ways to model and reinforce expectations for students. If there are allegations of misconduct or abuse, your school should have guidelines in the Employee Handbook for how these are handled, including referring to law enforcement if the behavior raises to that level.
- Historic Abuse: In these instances, your school should have a process ready for how to handle historic cases that outline steps from initial allegation to final communication. Advance planning is also required to decide whether you will make the full report available to the public. We believe that releasing the full report is the best way to deal with historic abuse investigations. See “Historic Misconduct and Abuse” for more information.
Common Steps Toward Healing
Keeping your school and your students safe is a critical aspect of running a school. In the case of sexual misconduct and abuse, we also know that caring for those involved in any alleged misconduct leads to the best outcomes for all parties.
Using survivor-centered practices outlined here typically reduce the amount of time required to process incidents, thereby reducing the costs of expensive outside professionals and often reducing or eliminating payments to survivors. Because when survivors are treated with dignity, when their suffering is validated, and when they observe transparency and a desire to help them heal, they are much less likely to exert control in other ways such as seeking legal and financial retribution.
It is important to note that there are 5 elements necessary for a survivor-centered approach to healing. When those who have been harmed observe and experience these, they can heal more effectively. They are as follows:
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:
- Apology: A sincere apology should be issued on behalf of your school to the survivor.
- Validation: Your school, as an institution, should validate the experience of the survivor. The validation should be included both in the apology to the survivor and in the publishing of the findings of the investigation, if it is published. (See “Who will communicate the findings of the Committee" above.)
- Recognition of Harm: In addition to validating the account of the survivor, your school should explicitly acknowledge the harm the survivor suffered as a result of the misconduct or abuse.
- Demonstrated willingness to support healing: Consider what your school is able to provide. The most obvious action to offer is reimbursement for therapy. We recognize that your school may have to establish some limitations for those wanting to accept therapeutic reimbursement. It’s important to recognize that any restriction will be viewed by survivors with skepticism and be seen as the school not being willing to take full responsibility for the harm caused. So, the fewer restrictions, the better. Another way to support survivor healing is to provide a third-party that can help the survivor locate an appropriate therapist. Also, if both the survivor wishes and the perpetrator is willing to apologize and accept responsibility for their past actions, a Restorative Justice approach may be implemented.
- Demonstrated commitment to prevent future harm: After a survivor comes forward, they need to know that they were heard and taken seriously. Your school can do this by learning from survivors’ experiences and putting measures in place to help prevent similar incidents of sexual misconduct and abuse from happening in the future. Make plans with specific goals and timelines. Following through with your plans and informing the survivor about these plans to reduce harm for others is an important step in demonstrating your commitment to reducing future harm. It also helps rebuild trust between the survivor and your school.
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. It is also important to know that healing is a process and it is likely that survivors might need or want different things depending on their stage of healing. 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.