Students make up the majority of most schools’ populations. This means that the students have a critical role in influencing the culture and climate of the school, as much as - and possibly more than - the employees who, likely, will be at the institution for longer. The unspoken rules and interpretations of your school culture, frequently termed the “hidden curriculum”, often dictate pervasive attitudes and behaviors on campus. Your student handbook sets expectations and outlines consequences. It is important that the culture of your school and your school’s handbook are aligned and that the rules you identify are followed. Failure to align the culture and the rules create risk for your school. To ensure understanding among families, many schools combine a parent’s handbook with their student handbook.
The student handbook is a valuable tool in which your school outlines your statement of purpose and your overall commitment to student well-being and safety. The handbook can serve as the platform for your school to convey and reinforce your culture, values, and expectations. Your student handbook must therefore provide clear guidelines around your school’s sexual misconduct and abuse policy. Be as specific as possible in your explanation of terms and expectations.
It is imperative to reinforce these details in student or faculty-led discussions to emphasize these important rules and resources. Most people won’t spend the time needed to examine the handbook, so small discussions are critical for understanding and learning. Providing examples in your handbook of behaviors that support healthy relationships sets expectations of what you want to see, and it enables students to identify and support fellow students that may be struggling in their relationships. Use your student handbook to set the tone and establish clear expectations for healthy sexual attitudes and behavior.
We know that the bulk of your student handbook will contain expectations and rules around academics, as well as logistics of physical aspects of the school day. Below we outline some of the topics Learning Courage thinks are essential to also include in your student handbook as they relate to sexual misconduct and abuse and healthy relationships.
Learning Courage believes that your student handbook should begin with your school’s mission statement and a core values statement. It must be a source of information on your school’s culture and sets expectations for student behavior. Furthermore, your school should explain and elaborate on what actions your school will take in order to maintain a safe, healthy, and inclusive school culture. A student handbook should clearly reinforce your school values and explicitly state how those values manifest in all aspects of school life and then how they are implemented. Recognize the ways in which your culture may not mirror your values and therefore have a larger impact on the nature of romantic and sexual relationships on campus. Use these disconnects as opportunities for discussion to reinforce healthy behaviors and prevent misinterpretation. These details will help demonstrate your school’s commitment to student safety and well-being. For more information see our “Commitment to Student Safety and Well-being” page.
Student safety and well-being is critical for all schools. Most schools have an assortment of student safety and wellness resources available to students. The most common resources are policies on school violence and emergency procedures. In addition to these, we highly recommend providing the process for reporting incidents of sexual misconduct and unsafe behavior. The student handbook should outline these different resources at your school as well as their role in helping survivors and victims of sexual misconduct and abuse in their healing processes. Example of services your school might have are:
To abide by it, students must read and understand the handbook. A starting point for this is requiring that students acknowledge in writing they have read and will adhere to the details outlined in the handbook. The challenge is ensuring that the details within the handbook are truly understood - especially since it makes sense to affirm understanding and commitment to adhering to policies at the beginning of each academic year, at a time that can be overwhelming for students.
Learning Courage, therefore, encourages you to provide students opportunities for discussions surrounding important aspects of the handbook. Before being required to sign the acknowledgment, there could be a Q&A session or small group discussions on the content of the handbook and different scenarios that reinforce understanding. Workshops or advisory circles are another common venue where students and faculty can discuss the handbook before signing their acknowledgment of the content. Residential life programs, where applicable, offer still another platform for discussion. Furthermore, your school should encourage conversations throughout each year related to misconduct to support a culture of safety and transparency of the expectations of the handbook. Your students should understand and be comfortable with what they are agreeing to.
Making your student handbook public on your website is a decision for each school. While you may have concerns about making the student handbook available on your public website, we recommend you consider this because it demonstrates your willingness to share your clear, transparent expectations, guidelines, and consequences for attitudes and behavior at your school. It also demonstrates how you uphold these standards and hold the community accountable to them. 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.
At a minimum, your school should use the website to clearly list resources and define terms relating to sexual misconduct and abuse. Most importantly, this document should be readily available for all enrolled students to use as a resource whether it is published on the public website or not.
This part of the student handbook is a place of opportunity for your school to clearly label and define sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse, and show how your school will place itself in the best position to create a transparent culture around these topics. You want there to be no doubt what these terms mean and how community members can get support if they were to experience one of them. If it is clear what constitutes harassment, misconduct, and abuse at your school, it will also allow you to engage in more thorough, thoughtful investigation processes. Some incidents at your school might fall into multiple categories such as hazing that occurs with sexual violence or bullying that takes place via sexual harassment. It is therefore important that all of these terms are defined clearly in the handbook for students' information.
For more information surrounding sexual misconduct, abuse, and harassment policies see:
Informing your student body on the many factors regarding reporting requirements will ideally help your students feel protected when talking to adults on campus. Your school may have different reporting requirements for harassment and sexual misconduct and abuse, but they should be clear. Mandatory reporting roles vary by school, and laws vary by state. All adults and students must know who are the mandated reporters and what that person is required to do with the information shared. If your state does not designate all adults as mandatory reporters, community members need to know with whom they are able to speak. It is also important to outline the implications (i.e., whether the information is sent to the police or not) of reporting information to certain members of the community.
There are many different companies that provide anonymous reporting and whistleblower services. Learning Courage recommends your school consider using an anonymous reporting option. That information should be easy for everyone to access and use. Ideally, it should be on your school’s website as well as in the handbook. Learning Courage also recommends that you include other resources for students who may not want to report their experiences (i.e., Rape Crisis Center, National Suicide Hotline, etc.) For more information see the “Reporting Requirements” page.
Schools are designed to serve their students. Creating supportive, safe spaces for students to be successful is every school's goal. For students to be and feel safe, they must know what resources are available to them. You should be honest and transparent regarding the resources you can provide to students and explain these resources in the handbook. Some resources that your school should provide and explain in the handbook include but are not limited to:
Include a section for terms and definitions related to sexual misconduct and abuse. You will signal to students and adults in your community your understanding and commitment to student safety and well-being. Furthermore, using these words will help your school articulate its desired culture in a very precise way. Many students may not have a full understanding of these terms, so it is important to thoroughly define them. For comprehensive definitions of the aforementioned words visit Learning Courage’s “Definition of Terms” page.
Your school should be aware that the aforementioned topics are not exhaustive. There will be other aspects of student life that are mentioned here that should be covered in the handbook, especially topics outside of the scope of sexual misconduct and abuse that are not mentioned here. It is essential that you adapt your handbook to the culture and experiences of your specific institution.
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.