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Responding to Reports of Sex Abuse

David Wolowitz
October 2020
Actions to ensure that your independent school properly responds to reports of sexual abuse

Attitudes and expectations around sexual violence at schools have evolved dramatically in recent years. Spurred by the federal government’s enforcement of Title IX at colleges, the changing culture in higher education has spread to independent schools. As a result, today’s independent school students, parents, and alumni have raised expectations for how schools prevent and respond to any reports of sexual abuse involving students, present or past. Additionally, abuse survivors are becoming more vocal, taking to social media or pursuing legal action against their former institutions.

To ensure that your school properly responds to reports of sexual abuse, take the following actions:

Involve the Board of Trustees

Updating the board on the school’s response efforts enables the board to carry out its duty of oversight. Also, the board needs to be cognizant of its role and not attempt to micromanage the administration’s actions.

Identify an Independent Investigator

When an institution receives a report of sexual misconduct, a prompt and impartial assessment of evidence is crucial. For more information on selecting an appropriate investigator, see the resources below.

Understand and Train on Mandatory Reporting Laws

Independent schools are being increasingly scrutinized over compliance with state reporting laws related to sexual abuse of minors. Consult with legal counsel to understand your institution’s reporting obligations. Regularly train students, faculty, and staff on the requirements to ensure compliance. Keep a log of reports.

Prepare for Reports of Past Abuse

To properly handle reports of past abuse, schools should:

  • Be ready to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation of these reports using an independent investigator.
  • Determine the scope of its investigation of past abuse and how findings will be shared.
  • Understand how mandatory reporting laws apply to past reports of abuse. Even if not mandated, schools should decide whether to voluntarily report a past claim.
  • Understand the school’s insurance coverage available for claims by past victims and other options for reparation. Remember, at a minimum, most victims want assurances that policies and practices are in place to reduce the likelihood of similar abuse.
  • Know the applicable civil and criminal statutes of limitations for claims by past victims. However, even when criminal prosecution or civil litigation is precluded by statutes of limitations, schools and boards should consider what is the “right” thing to do in each case.

Audit Past Incidents

Some schools are attempting to identify possible past cases of abuse by reviewing old files, soliciting alumni, and interviewing past administrators. The major impetus is that perpetrators may still be at the school or have gone on to work at other schools, placing additional students at risk.

Students, parents, alumni, and the news media expect independent schools to be transparent and accountable in their response to sexual abuse of students by faculty. Schools that are unaware of these attitudes and are not prepared to act accordingly imperil the safety of their students and risk significant adverse legal repercussions.

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