Protecting Students from Sexual Misconduct by School Staff

01/07/2018
SECURITY
By Tom Strasburger
 

This past spring, viewers around the nation watched the FBI’s manhunt for former Tennessee teacher Tad Cummins and a then 15-year-old student. The news coverage of the ordeal included testimonials from schoolmates and Cummins’ former students stating they suspected or had experienced inappropriate conduct from Cummins. 

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Although the district took steps to intervene and reprimand Cummins for his relationship with his student, the steps appear to have been insufficient and her life was put in danger. As a result, the district was involved with a federal investigation.

Districts do include information about inappropriate student-teacher relationships in their staff codes of conduct, however, instances of inappropriate behavior keep happening. More can be done to prevent these types of events from happening, including more effectively training staff, students, parents and the community to be aware of these types of situations; providing confidential reporting processes and communication of the process with all of the aforementioned on how to report all suspicions; developing and implementing better intervention tactics and more.

What may be a trusting relationship between a staff member and a student could appear to be more than it is to an outsider. Or, it could be a situation where the relationship is turning inappropriate and action needs to be taken.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s report “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature,” sexual misconduct is defined as any behavior of a sexual nature which may constitute professional misconduct. This includes activities that are directed toward establishing a sexual relationship, such as sending intimate letters; engaging in sexual dialog through writing, in person, by phone or via the Internet; making suggestive comments; or dating a student. It also includes any conduct that would qualify as sexual harassment under Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972 and any behaviors that would amount to abuse of a minor under state criminal codes. Any of these behaviors that occur between school staff and an existing student, regardless of age; a former student under the age of 18; or a former student, regardless of age, who suffers from a disability that would prevent consent in a relationship, can be considered sexual misconduct.

Some offenders are exclusively interested in children or adolescents, while others are likely to exploit sexual relationships with both children and adults. In elementary school and early middle school grades, offenders are often successful teachers who are respected by their peers and popular with students. Their offenses are often more premeditated, as well. In later middle school and high school grades, offenders may or may not be considered successful or respected by their peers, and incidents are less premeditated. Instead, they may be the result of poor judgement or a misplaced sense of privilege.

Oftentimes the students who fall victim to sexual misconduct are students who struggle academically or behaviorally, seek and value positive attention from school staff, are estranged from their parents, are insecure and unsure of themselves, and engage in risky behaviors. One way to help these students is to identify these characteristics in their early stages so staff can prevent a situation from escalating.

Here are some tips districts can follow to help reduce — and hopefully prevent — inappropriate student-teacher relationships.

Set Boundaries and Policies for Student-Teacher Interaction

We want staff to develop relationships with their students, but it has to be done in an appropriate way. Provide your staff with strategies or policies for social media interaction and after-hours interaction to help your staff avoid inappropriate situations. Solutions include leaving classroom or office doors open, abstaining from communicating with students on personal email addresses and more.

Don’t Use a “Tell Someone You Trust” Reporting Policy

Relying on this type of reporting creates room for error and bias. If a student reports a situation to a teacher or administrator, that person’s own bias may get in the way. The staff member may think “my colleague would never do that,” and choose not to follow-up on the student’s suspicion, which would then go uninvestigated and unaddressed and would allow harm to a student to continue.

Implement Reporting Procedures that Eliminate Bias

Districts have different options for reporting issues that take the bias out of reporting, including call centers, online reporting systems, or reporting apps that include documentation of the investigation. By implementing more than one of these systems, a district can ensure that it is providing options to support the way individuals like to communicate. Also, offering an anonymous reporting option may encourage people who might be anxious about reporting to come forward. Almost every time an inappropriate student-teacher relationship occurs, there are staff and students who suspected something was happening but did not feel comfortable reporting it. Anonymous reporting tools are a must.

Provide the Entire School Community with Information About Inappropriate Student-Teacher Relationships and What to do if There is Suspicion of an Inappropriate Relationship

The school community includes students and staff, parents and guardians, as well as the community at large. Districts should ensure their entire community understands the signs of sexual misconduct, including sexual grooming, which involves an adult engaging in increasingly persistent boundary invasions with a child. When the entire community knows the proper actions to take and is provided the tools to do so, it creates a sense of awareness and accountability, which reminds perpetrators they are being watched and they will be reported.

Constantly Remind Community Members About the Reporting Tools

The community needs to be reminded throughout the school year where they can report suspicion behaviors. Staff members can talk about it with students during homeroom and general announcements should be made periodically. Other ways to remind students about how to report suspicions include hanging posters throughout the school, hosting safe student gatherings, or passing out stickers and bookmarks with instructions on how to report issues. For staff, team meetings, internal communications and in-service days are perfect opportunities to reinforce reporting procedures. All districts should provide regular communications via email and social media to parents and guardians about signs of inappropriate relationships and grooming and what do if they have a concern. Teachers should also share information about reporting tools during parent-teacher conferences.

Encourage Reporting and Document all Investigations

Encourage individuals to report all suspicions. It is the role of administration to investigate to determine if the “report” is true, but it cannot be investigated if it is not reported. Reporting all suspicions creates a full record on issues and documentation of the investigations. Having a data repository for reports, administrators can see trends or signs that there may be an issue.

When investigating a report, administrators should record all of their findings and actions. During the investigation, administrators may meet with the student and teacher involved, contact or meet with the student’s family and the teachers’ colleagues, and more. Every action an administrator takes should be recorded to ensure it is comprehensive. If someone questions administration about their involvement in a particular situation, they can show them the steps they took throughout the entire investigation.

Be as Transparent as Possible

Many times these stories end up in the news. It is important to have a communication plan in place that shares the actions the district takes to keep students safe and the procedures and policies in place to limit situations like these from happening. In the event that a teacher develops a relationship with a student and convinces him or her to run away like Tad Cummins did, providing as much information as possible to the media can help in multiple ways. This helps the public understand the situation and hopefully helps return the student safely. However, it also shows the public that the district is willing to cooperate and has nothing to hide.

By following these safety tips, districts can help protect their students from these situations.

Tom Strasburger is the vice president of Strategic Alliances at PublicSchoolWORKS in Cincinnati, Ohio. To learn how your district can implement and sustain a comprehensive, proactive safety program, contact Tom at [email protected]
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Issue 20.2 | Fall 2018

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