Reporting sexual misconduct and abuse can be both scary and confusing. For a survivor, not only do they have to gather the courage to disclose their experience, but they also have to determine how they want to report. Survivors typically feel a deep sense of shame for their role in what happened. While they may know intuitively that they are not responsible for the abuse, most survivors internalize some sense that they are in some way to blame for what happened. It can also be very difficult for a concerned peer or employee to determine what is the best action to help a survivor.
At Learning Courage, we believe your school has a responsibility to survivors to create a system for reporting incidents that is simple to follow, straightforward, and as transparent as possible. In short, anyone in a position to report an incident of abuse needs to trust that the system will work for them rather than deepen their trauma.
We recognize developing effective policies is complicated, especially with differences in state laws concerning reporting sexual abuse. This document outlines our recommended best practices for developing an easy-to-follow reporting policy for sexual misconduct and abuse.
Different instances of misconduct and abuse will require different modes of reporting. The reporting party may be a student, employee, or alumni. Your school should have reporting options specifically tailored to the needs of each of these three groups. Additionally, your school should offer both internal and external reporting options for reports.
Title IX is a piece of federal legislation that applies to institutions that receive federal funding. Although Title IX may not apply to your school, the legislation is generally a good example to follow when you are developing a sexual misconduct and abuse policy. Learning Courage’s “Title IX Information” page summarizes the best practices of Title IX and includes recommendations on how to apply its principles to your school.
Laws regarding reporting sexual misconduct and abuse vary by state. The following resources will help familiarize you with your state’s laws:
Disclaimer: Learning Courage cannot guarantee that these resources are continually updated, so please make sure to check whether the information provided by these websites are up-to-date with your state.
Your local police department may need to get involved in responding to an incident of sexual abuse or misconduct at your school. If a student or employee chooses to make an external report, that external report may be made to your local law enforcement. Also, when your school is made aware of a report of sexual misconduct or abuse of a child (child being a person under the age of 18) you will be required to file a report with either your local police department, the U.S. Department of Children and Families (DCF), or both. In this case, your school may be limited in how you can respond to a report until the police and/or DCF have completed their investigation. This is why we recommend that your school establish a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with your local police department. The MOU should outline how your institution and the local police department will respond, either jointly or separately, to reports of sexual misconduct and abuse. This ensures a working relationship, so your school does not have to scramble to communicate with law enforcement when an external report is made from your community. Establishing a MOU with local law enforcement also demonstrates to the community that you are being proactive in your approach to addressing these issues.
Unfortunately, incidents of sexual misconduct and abuse are not limited to the academic year and on-campus. It is therefore important to have reporting policies in place for students and employees to consult in case they need to report during breaks, summer, or off-campus events. Your school should articulate how the reporting policy pertains to summer school programs, student travel, study abroad, sports, off-campus trips and events, and more. This can be quite intricate, but it is important to spend the time clearly addressing this issue within your policies, to be communicated in your student and employee handbooks and on your website. Your insurance provider can share appropriate language and identify the specifics that your policy should include.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rise in the utilization of online and distance learning platforms. While it may be true that virtual gatherings and communications come with a decreased risk of physical sexual misconduct and abuse on campus, they also likely come with an increased risk of sexual misconduct or abuse via electronic devices. It is critical that you keep your students and employees accountable for the safety of the community while engaging in online and distance learning. Make sure your community members are aware of appropriate behaviors while engaging with each other on-line. Set strict boundaries, such as no sharing personal phone numbers, emails, and social media between students and teachers. As is the case with in-person student-to-teacher interactions, communication online should be friendly, but professional. For more information regarding boundary violations online, see Learning Courage’s “COVID-19 Implications” and “Signs and Symptoms” pages.
It is also important to make sure reporting options are still available to your students and employees during the time of on-line and distance learning. While the focus of our work is on school-related abuse and misconduct, it’s important to recognize that increased stress can also mean an increase in abuse for students who live at home. Employees need to be trained and have resources available to assist a student if they recognize signs of abuse or a student discloses the abuse. For example, it may not be an option to offer in-person counseling to students, but your school could still offer counseling via phone call or Zoom/Skype. If your school has a whistleblower hotline during the “normal” school year, we recommend that you keep it active during on-line and distance learning (see “Student Reporting Policy” below).
Reporting sexual misconduct and abuse can be scary and intimidating. A survivor may be re-traumatized by the event as well as concerned about all of the unknowns and possible implications that arise with reporting. Therefore, your school must make the reporting process as straightforward as possible by providing specific information about who survivors can go to and what resources are available to survivors both on and off-campus.
For example, stating that a student should go to a “trusted adult” assumes that there is an obvious choice for that student. It also assumes that the adult they choose has been trained in how to handle a report. Your school likely already has a school counselor who is trained to notice and respond to abuse. However, we recommend that there be a few other employees on campus who are trained in this as well and that all of the trained contacts are clearly named with contact information in school communications.
Reporting options should be made known in multiple places, including your school’s website and student handbook (Fig. 1). It is best to have supportive, easy-to-follow instructions for students, knowing it may be scary for them to consider reporting. One option is to provide a decision tree for students (Fig. 2). Guidelines on how or when to report to authorities should be included. It may be helpful to provide a whistleblower hotline, like EthicsPoint, which is completely confidential and available 24 hours a day.
Fig 1. An example of a list of reporting resources your school may provide to students
Fig 2. An example of a reporting decision tree that your school may provide to students
If a student has been a victim of sexual misconduct or abuse, they may seek out a school employee for counsel. The survivor may choose to confide in this employee but not necessarily intend to submit an official report of the misconduct or abuse. This is an issue when that employee who the student chooses is a mandated reporter (see “Mandated Reporting” below). A survivor of abuse has likely sustained emotional, mental, and spiritual trauma, some of which may be associated with losing control. Often, the only thing a survivor feels like they can control is the story of the experience itself; it can deepen the trauma for a survivor when someone else shares the story without the survivor’s permission. However, a mandated reporter may be obligated to share that story whether it is the survivor’s wish or not. This is why all students must understand that a conversation with a mandated reporter is never confidential. It is good for students to feel comfortable sharing their experiences with certain school employees, but they must understand the potential implications of doing so. Clearly articulate the difference between confidential and private conversations to students through in-person training as well as in the student handbook.
We recommend that your school have immunity provisions to encourage reporting from students. An immunity provision either partially or entirely protects a reporting student from formal punishment if they were violating another school policy when the misconduct or abuse occurred. These may also be referred to as sanctuary policies or amnesty provisions. It is ultimately up to your school to decide how to discipline any student who violates school policies, but we encourage you to recognize the value in reducing the fear associated with reporting by letting students know that they will not be punished for coming forward with their experiences and being completely honest.
As a school administrator, you already know how critical your school’s relationship with your students’ parents/guardians is for a successful community. In the case that the reporting and responding parties are both students, your school should develop a protocol for if, how, and when the parents/guardians of either party will be notified of the report. Most states require by law that the parents or legal guardians of a child (child is defined as a person under the age of 18) be notified if the child was involved in a report of sexual abuse. We believe it is your school’s obligation to notify the parents or legal guardians of students under the age of 18 if they are involved in a report of sexual misconduct or abuse. This ensures transparent communication between your school and your students’ parents/guardians that will help to build a trusting relationship. It is up to your school to decide whether this policy extends to parents and legal guardians of students over the age of 18. We recognize that there are different decision points throughout the reporting and investigation process for determining parent/guardian involvement. Some states have laws that also give parents/guardians rights to access to the investigation process following the report. Check with your legal counsel before making any decisions regarding policies for notifying parents/guardians of reports.
Your school should provide interim support measures to both reporting and responding students if needed. These measures may include but are not limited to: academic accommodations, housing accommodations (if a student lives on campus), medical support services, counseling services, and allowing the reporting student a leave of absence. The support measures your school is able to provide to reporting students should be mentioned on your school’s website and in the student handbook. For more information, see Learning Courage’s “Supportive Services” page.
A mandated reporter is a person who is obligated to report if they know of or suspect abuse. Mandated reporting laws differ based on state (See RAINN policy database). According to new Title IX regulations, all school employees are considered mandated reporters. Even if Title IX does not apply to your school, most employees at your school who work with minors will likely be considered mandated reporters, meaning they are obligated to report when they know of or suspect abuse of a minor. All employees who are considered mandated reporters by law should be made aware of their role. All mandated reporters should also receive proper training on how to identify the signs and symptoms of abuse as well as how to report if they know of or suspect abuse. In addition to in-person training, this information should also be made available in your school’s employee handbook.
Your employees are valued community members, which is why it is important for your school to demonstrate commitment to employee safety in addition to the safety of your students. Provide specific internal and external reporting options to your employees and make sure to include this information in the employee handbook. We also recommend that your school provide support options for reporting employees. This may include the option to take a leave of absence and/or getting them in touch with a therapist for mental health support. It is crucial that reporting employees be protected from retaliation, especially if the responding party is their superior. Not only does having non-retaliation policies in place make the workplace safer for all employees, but these protections are required by federal and state laws. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires whistleblower protections for private-sector employees [Whistleblower Complaint Form | Occupational Safety and Health Administration], and Title IX prohibits retaliation for making reports in all schools that receive federal funding (See Learning Courage’s “Title IX Information” page).
Our philosophy regarding what your school’s attitude should be towards addressing historic misconduct and abuse is outlined in Learning Courage’s “Historic Misconduct and Abuse” page:
As a school leader, you may believe the need to confront historic misconduct and abuse does not apply to your institution. The unfortunate reality is that, if your institution has been around for any substantial period of time, there is likely to be a painful history of misconduct and abuse within your community. Some schools may be more affected by this issue than others, but it is unlikely that your school has never been affected. The question is how your school will address that history.
Therefore, we strongly believe that your school should consider reaching out to all former students to inquire about past instances of sexual misconduct and abuse in your community. This is a difficult task; for our recommended best practices, see Learning Courage’s “Historic Misconduct and Abuse” page.
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