School and Board Leadership

No student should have to fear for their own safety while attending school. Your school must be safe and supportive in order for effective learning and teaching to take place. Unfortunately, 1 in 4 females and 1 in 6 males are victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18 according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.  What’s more troubling is that these statistics are based only on reported incidents. United Educators estimates that as much as 90% of abuse goes unreported.

What’s more, the way those who choose to report abuse are treated in the aftermath of an incident can either add to their trauma and support their healing.  Increasingly, today’s school leaders recognize the importance of focusing on caring for the individuals over the institution: an approach that actually ends up providing equal protection for the institution.

Taking a survivor-centric approach requires an institutional commitment and a process that supports it.  The roadmap for this is laid out in policies and procedures and handbooks, and it must be supported by both the decision-making process and leadership of your school.  The Head of School and the Board Chair play a critical role in managing the school’s response to sexual misconduct and abuse, and they should discuss and agree on your school’s practices and approaches prior to dealing with incidents. In our view, alignment between the Head of School and Board Chair (with agreement from the Board) about the approach and strategy for responding to reports of misconduct is perhaps the most significant determinant in achieving an outcome that minimizes trauma and maximizes healing. Other administrators and faculty members also play crucial roles in reducing instances of sexual misconduct and creating an informed, safe, and supportive school community. This document outlines recommended approaches to governance, highlighting the importance of both reducing sexual misconduct and abuse incidents and responding effectively when they are reported.

Leadership Alignment

When Heads of School and their Boards are aligned on the approach for handling incidents, it means they are in agreement on how to approach and respond to sexual misconduct reports. Alignment allows your leadership team to focus on what needs to be done rather than on negotiating how to respond. Conversely, a lack of alignment can lead to deeper trauma for victims, exacerbate community mistrust, lengthen the duration of the incidents, increase your school’s financial burden, and ultimately can also increase leadership turnover.

If the Board Chair is not sufficiently available to participate in the committee - or if there are other logical reasons for this - another person from the executive committee should replace the Chair.

Governance Structure

When creating committees, the groups need specific deliverables, and individuals must also have clear roles.  As it relates to responding to reports of sexual abuse and misconduct, it allows administrators, Board members, and employees to have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities. These structures are designed to establish and maintain clarity about who is involved in different pieces of the process such as decision making, supporting, investigating, communicating, etc. Creating this clarity is critical for decision-making and taking action during these highly charged and often emotional circumstances.  Supporting and maintaining strong leadership also ensures that your school is doing a thorough job and is diligent about keeping students safe.  And it leads to more productive and effective action. 

Responding to Sexual Misconduct and Abuse: Response Team/Taskforce

We recommend using a Response team/Task Force.  A “Response Team” or “Task Force,” is separate from the regular discipline committee.  The role of a Response Team is to handle all the moving parts of handling reports of sexual misconduct and abuse. We recommend that you have two response teams. One should focus on responding to current student-on-student abuse. The other would be gathered in response to reports of historic abuse or current adult-on-student abuse. These two groups serve different purposes. The Response Team responding to reports from current school members has a very different duty of care because you are often dealing with minors. Historic abuse reports, however, typically come from adults. And there is no immediate need for medical attention. The composition of these committees will likely vary slightly from school to school, but we recommend the following compositions:

Current student-on-student misconduct and abuse teams often 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 (New York State Association of Independent Schools).  Since the Title IX Coordinator/Wellness Coordinator is trained to receive reports and address them, they can help the team respond appropriately. This team will likely also consult outside legal counsel. Depending on the severity of the case and the potential for it to become a public story, there should also be a communications professional (in-house or outside professional) to ensure there is a consistent approach and response. For maximum transparency, information about the composition of the response team or task force should be displayed on your school’s website.

Historic misconduct and abuse and any current adult-on-student abuse team should include the Head of School, the Board Chair, and one or two other Board members (possibly from the executive committee). You might also want to include the Assistant Head and a trained counselor. This committee will also consult legal counsel and will require a communications professional (in-house or contracted). The Head of School should be the primary point person because that is typically the person with whom the reporting party wants to speak.

To ensure that these teams are adequately prepared to respond to reports, they should undergo training about sexual misconduct, abuse, trauma, and other important topics. The teams should also have established protocols and policies and procedures and all members should be familiar with those. In addition, we recommend that teams regularly review and, if necessary, revise the protocols and policies and procedures. 

Whenever your school receives any report of sexual misconduct or abuse, the person leading the team determines the immediate course of action and includes the others on the team for input, meeting together, as necessary. The Response Team should be sure to closely follow your school’s policies and procedures (or grievance procedure).  This may seem obvious, but it is not uncommon to modify or inadvertently skip steps in policies and procedures in moments of pressure and stress.  Adhering to these practices will protect the school. Conversely, veering from approved procedures opens your school up to liability as well as potentially creating unintended harm.

We recommend that the response teams create a safe recordkeeping system for reports of sexual misconduct and abuse, including how reports are addressed, actions taken for both the reporting and responding parties, investigation outcomes, policy enforcement, and prevention efforts. This system will help administrators identify patterns or systematic problems with responding effectively to sexual misconduct and abuse.  It will also help you improve your school’s system through training, policy improvement, and identifying repeat offenders.

Reducing Sexual Misconduct and Abuse:

Safety Committee/Health and Wellness Committee

While you should have a response team charged with responding to reports of sexual misconduct and abuse, the greatest long-term impact will come from focusing on reducing incidents. This effort at schools is often driven by the people responsible for diversity, equity, inclusion, and wellness and should be supported by others interested in maintaining a safe school environment.  The objective is to evaluate what your school needs, monitor the impact of the activity, and adjust regularly to ensure you’re addressing areas you’d like to improve.  

It’s also useful to promote your school’s practices for ensuring student safety from sexual misconduct and abuse. Putting this information on your school’s website demonstrates your school’s commitment to keeping students safe. In addition to education for employees and students, consider including opportunities to engage parents, alums, and others interested in learning about topics related to reducing and responding to incidents. This helps cultivate a school culture of care and respect. Learning Courage suggests the involvement of multiple people and departments on the committee, which provides various perspectives. See Learning Courage’s page on “Prevention and Training” for more information.

Communication

Communicating about misconduct and abuse is very different for student-on-student versus historic or current adult-on-student abuse. To protect the privacy of the individuals, it’s essential to limit communication within the school community about student-on-student abuse and findings. The other types of abuse require different approaches. All of them require updating the community about the process and findings with as much transparency and consistency as possible. The more communication and transparency there is, the easier it is to maintain or rebuild trust. For more information, see Learning Courage’s page on “Communications Guidelines.” You may also find more information in the “Handling Investigation Findings” section of Learning Courage’s “Historic Misconduct” page.

When school leaders are aligned around building and maintaining a survivor-centric approach to sexual misconduct, schools create the opportunity for the best outcome for all involved.  Alignment in leadership requires advance planning and must be endorsed by both the Head of School and the Board. Even with these endorsements, there is no guarantee, of course, that the process will be simple, linear, or efficient.  But it creates the environment for supporting those who have been harmed, which will reduce the amount of time and resources required to address the issue while also minimizing the trauma experienced by the reporting party.  In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that using a trauma-informed, victim-centric lens in responding to sexual misconduct is the best way to save time and financial resources - in addition to being the morally appropriate way to respond.

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