According to the Department of Education, incidents of sexual abuse in K-12 schools increased 55% in 2017-18 versus 2015-16. This staggering figure has been partially attributed to better reporting methods and more awareness. Yet, it does not change that these incidents occur within the confines of a place children trust the most.
“Schools are responsible for promoting a safe atmosphere where students feel comfortable reporting any signs of abuse, and not doing so may lead to allegations of negligence,” said Susan Thomson, Director – Public Entity Underwriting at Safety National. “With legal and settlement costs associated with SAM claims continuing to increase, districts should emphasize sexual misconduct risk management, including a prevention plan with methods for identifying, documenting, and responding to incidents.”
In an effort to help prevent sexual abuse, districts should consider including the following elements as part of their ongoing risk management plan.
Districts must have a policy explicitly outlining what behaviors are allowed and prohibited. An example of this includes probation for employees who transport students in a personal vehicle. This policy should have clearly defined boundaries for both low- and high-risk activities. Social media policies, incident reporting, and software monitoring can assist in a school’s ability to mitigate these risks. It is a best practice for these policies to be enforced without exceptions and routinely updated.
It is important to assess all available public resources by performing background checks along with screening conducted by private companies. The hiring process for applicants may include personal interviews and references, child abuse registry checks, national criminal and sexual offense background checks, and initial and periodic background checks. Advanced screening processes can help identify applicants who fail to recognize sexual boundaries between adults and children and those who are at a high possibility of having sexually abused a child.
3. Training & Supervision
Once an applicant has been thoroughly screened and hired, districts are ready to begin the training process, which is critical in understanding the signs to prevent abuse. The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments provides access to Safe Place to Learn materials with guidance for administrators, training for all school staff, response team planning, and trauma sensitivity training. Introduced in Illinois, Erin’s Law is now in effect in over 37 states, mandating child sexual abuse prevention. Training may also include a curriculum for students on how to recognize child sexual abuse and report it to a trusted adult.
Supervision becomes particularly critical in isolated areas like offices, storage rooms, and at off-campus events. Random, but consistent, observations can identify concerning behavior that requires intervention. However, a best practice is to limit these interactions through enforced policies.
Only 26% of child sexual abuse survivors disclose their abuse to adults. Many may self-blame or worry they will not be believed. Knowing that most children will not report an incident makes it even more critical for adults to understand physical and behavioral warning signs. Districts should have a standard procedure for reporting any signs of abuse, which may include anonymous reporting options. Under Title IX, all schools receiving federal funds must adopt and publish procedures for resolving complaints of sex discrimination, including sexual violence.
In addition to a school’s responsibility to report incidents of sexual abuse, Title IX also requires a prompt and effective response, including providing immediate help to a student, whether that be changing classrooms and transportation or disclosing confidential support services. No matter how innocent the conduct may appear, an investigation may help clarify any inappropriate behavior. Schools will need to gather sufficient evidence to show that a thorough investigation was performed before a final decision is made. This may include eyewitness accounts, written statements from the victim and witnesses, and any physical evidence.
For more expertise, guidance or resources on this topic, please contact [email protected].