Independent Schools Address Educator Sexual Misconduct

Peter Upham, TABS Executive Director, and Donna Orem, NAIS President, co-authored this blog.

Independent schools exist to help young people learn, grow, and become healthy adults. Our schools have been highly successful, many for hundreds of years, but as a number of schools have experienced in recent years, the scourge of sexual misconduct can affect any institution that serves children.

Sexual misconduct — which can range from verbal harassment to forcible rape — undermines the bedrock expectation that schools will provide a safe place for children to learn. It violates the core values of independent schools and the ethical standards of the thousands of educators who devote their lives to teaching, coaching, and mentoring the students in their care. To protect the children our industry exists to serve and to deliver on the promise independent schools make to families, our schools must address this issue head on. As leaders of associations that serve nearly 2,000 schools and associations of schools, we are committed to doing so.

In the summer of 2016, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) partnered to form the Independent School Task Force on Educator Sexual Misconduct. We received dozens of nominations for Task Force members, from which we recruited a 12-person team with far-reaching expertise. The Task Force members are school heads and administrators, association leaders, childhood sexual abuse survivors, investigators, researchers, and advocates who work on issues of sexual abuse prevention and mitigation.

The goal of the Task Force was to take a 360-degree look at educator sexual misconduct in independent schools and develop a set of recommendations to help schools best prevent educator sexual misconduct and respond justly, compassionately, and effectively to cases of educator sexual misconduct, past and present.

The Task Force came together three times throughout the 2016-2017 school year and also met virtually. Together, we pored over research and shared information about the ways educator sexual misconduct occurs in schools and how schools can best assist survivors. We expanded our understanding of various independent school contexts — older buildings, large campuses, small schools, residential life programs, cultural norms and practices, extracurricular activities, school trips, and more — by interviewing dozens of people, both survivors as well as those with experience preventing or responding to educator sexual misconduct. Among the people interviewed were school leaders, counselors, human resources professionals, lawyers who investigate cases of misconduct, crisis communications professionals, and school trustees. Task Force members developed recommendations, then reviewed and honed them.

Today we are releasing a draft version of the Task Force’s 30-page report for review and comment. Our hope is that teachers, administrators, board members, alumni, survivors, and others will provide comments or suggestions to help us improve these recommendations. The draft report will be available through September 22. At the end of the document, you will find a link to provide feedback. After we have considered all the responses and suggestions, we will post the final report online and send bound copies to all NAIS and TABS member schools in the late autumn.

The recommendations are split into two sections: prevention and response.

In the prevention section, the recommendations encourage schools to deepen their understanding of the dynamics of abuse, including the ways perpetrators groom potential victims and conceal abuse, as well as the ways symptoms of abuse may manifest in children. Schools must always be aware of and ensure compliance with laws for reporting suspected abuse, but their efforts must go further. Schools should take steps such as developing codes of conduct that clearly define and set expectations for appropriate behavior and professional boundaries. Schools should nurture a culture of awareness that places the safety and well-being of children first, while still maintaining the close, positive mentoring relationships between educators and students for which independent schools are known. Training is a critical component of prevention.

The response recommendations advise schools to act compassionately toward survivors. They stipulate that effective response goes beyond legal compliance. The recommendations urge empathy and transparency as school leaders help their communities heal.

Addressing educator sexual misconduct can be difficult, but it is a vital step for all schools. Improving policies and discussing challenges more openly will help protect children and ensure that our schools continue to provide all the benefits of an independent school education long into the future.

The draft report of the Independent School Task Force on Educator Sexual Misconduct is available here.

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