It’s that time of the year when many children, adolescents, and young adults return to the classroom. As they enter into their various academic environments—K-12 or post-secondary—their safety and well-being is always a prime concern.
Unfortunately during the past few years several high-profile incidents have rocked the education industry to its core. And behind these are many other incidents just as terrible that have not captured the attention of the national media.
No matter what the details of the case may be, any act of sexual misconduct—whether connected to the sports, hospitality, non-profit, or corporate sector—can have devastating consequences for both the victims and the organizations.
Chilling Statistics of Sexual Abuse of Students
However, by far the education sector due to its unique role and responsibilities is arguably one of the more “at-risk” industries in terms of addressing the challenges associated with events of this sort. Consider this:
- Nearly 9.6% of students are targets of educator sexual misconduct sometime during their school career. (U.S. Department of Education
- Someone in the United States is sexually assaulted every two minutes, with 44% of the victims being under the age of 18, 20% are under the age of 8. (RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)
- Over 200,000 sexual assaults against children are reported to the police nationwide every year. (Crimes against Children Research Center)
- A statistical sampling of the student population nationwide indicated 4.5 million students in grades K-12 have suffered some form of sexual abuse by an educator, and more than 3 million had experienced sexual touching or assault. (American Association of University Women Educational Foundation)
- Nearly 4,000 reported incidents of sexual battery and over 800 reported rapes and attempted rapes are occurring in our nation’s public high schools. (U.S Department of Justice)
- When young women get to college, nearly 20% of them will be victims of attempted or actual sexual assault, as will about 6% of undergraduate men. (U.S. Department of Justice)
- In New York alone, from 2010-2011 there were 85 reports of inappropriate communications between teachers and students involving Facebook as compared to 8 complaints from 2008-2009. (NY Times)
- Between 1% and 5% of teachers sexually abuse or harass students. (American Association of University Women Educational Foundation)
Title IX Implications and Guidance
In addition to the unimaginable pain and suffering caused to the victims of these horrible crimes and the staggering amount of reputational damage and liability the intuitions may face, there are also possible Department of Education Title IX implications.
Title IX is the Federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities. All public and private elementary and secondary schools, school districts, colleges, and universities receiving any Federal funds must comply with Title IX.
An increasing number of attorneys are litigating these cases and finding new ways to hold schools accountable. Last year the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Education, released new guidance to assist schools, colleges, and universities to understand and implement their responsibilities under Title IX to prevent and correct sexual harassment on their campuses. It’s clear this guidance is intended to prevent schools from making mistakes that others have made in recent years. For example, if an incident is reported to a school’s athletic department, such as cases involving student-athletes or non-students utilizing the school’s facilities, the athletic department must make sure that individual has the same access to make a grievance as any other campus student would have. It cannot seek to handle the matter within the athletic department in an attempt to limit the department’s or school’s exposure to sanctions or negative publicity.
The guidance also makes it clear that schools should take immediate steps to launch an investigation and that the school’s response to charges of sexual misconduct cannot be conditioned on the results of a criminal investigation by police; schools should not delay their own internal investigations into reported incidents of this type. The guidance also reminds schools to take steps to protect the complainant, such as possibly changing the student’s living arrangements and schedule without creating excess burden or stress upon the student and to provide her/him with access to counseling and support services. This guidance letter does not create new rights and responsibilities under Title IX, but instead was offered to clarify existing duties to help schools better protect their campus communities and also avoid potential liability.
Preventing Campus Sexual Misconduct
As with any risk, prevention is always the number-one goal. Toward that end, please consider the following to prevent or at the very least reduce the likelihood of these events from occurring on your campus.
- Designate a Title IX Coordinator (if applicable).
- Adopt a “Zero Tolerance” approach regarding any act of sexual misconduct occurring on your campus.
- Thoroughly review all your organization’s existing training programs, policies and procedures regarding acts of harassment and sexual misconduct. Address any area for improvement while seeking not only to increase your management and accountability in this regard but rather to set a standard for industry excellence and leadership.
- Develop and document clear reporting and investigative procedures for allegations of sexual misconduct.
- Develop a comprehensive sexual misconduct prevention program with training, education, and awareness for all campus stakeholders—especially those who provide oversight or supervision of children.
- Know who you are hiring. Perform background checks on any person who would serve in a role involving children, and require that any person using your campus facilities for the activities of children be held to the same standard.
- Consider developing a policy of ongoing post-hire employee background checks.
- Evaluate any past incidents or allegations of sexual misconduct, and identify areas for response or risk management improvement going forward.
- Ensure you have multiple ways for the campus community to report possible acts of sexual misconduct or other wrongdoing.
Awareness +Training = Risk Reduction!
Responding to Allegations of Sexual Misconduct
Unfortunately, while prevention of these acts is our number-one goal, some incidents are just simply outside our ability to prevent. During these difficult times please remember the following suggestions to help guide your way:
- Immediately and thoroughly address all allegations of this sort the school is made aware of. Even if a student, her/his parent or campus stakeholder does not want a complaint filed or requests that the school not take action on the student’s behalf, if a school knows or reasonably should know about possible sexual harassment or sexual violence, by law it must investigate to determine what occurred and then take appropriate steps to resolve the situation.
- Maintain a transparent internal investigative process.
- Immediately engage external subject matter experts, investigators, and crisis management professionals familiar with sensitive investigations of this sort to supplement your internal resources when needed.
- Don’t wait for outside help to begin your investigation, but be mindful of requests from law enforcement.
- Maintain your awareness of the confidentiality and the sensitivity of these issues involving the alleged victims and any potential witnesses.
- Offer counseling, academic, medical and/or other support to the victim.
- Once the investigation is complete, take any and all steps to ensure that incidents of wrongdoing are addressed swiftly and corrective steps are immediately put in place to prevent a reoccurrence and to protect the victim as well as the rest of the campus community from a similar incident.
Some risks affect us more than others, on a very deep, profound, and personal level. Some risks are beyond being measured in dollars; especially those risks that directly impact the health and safety of those persons whom we cherish the most: our children.
As our greatest treasures and most important stakeholders return to the classroom this fall, please remember this quote from a student sexual assault survivor; “Because I trusted him and my parents liked him, I did not think this behavior was inappropriate.” Then ask yourself, “Am I doing all that I can to ensure the safety of my campus community?”