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Staff Misconduct - When It's a Problem, It's a Big One

Author
Dennis Lewis
Date of Post
Sep 27, 2009

School Staff and Sexual Misconduct

It’s Not a Problem ‘Til It’s a Problem – And Then It’s a Big One

Hardly a day passes without a report surfacing somewhere indicating a school employee has been accused, arrested or adjudicated for engaging in sexual misconduct with a student. For the average person, the occasional national splash of an incident may not convey the real extent of the problem, but for school principals, careful attention should be paid to these sensitive and emotionally charged incidents.

According to a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Education by Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University and Interactive Inc., an estimated 4.5 million students are subjected to some degree of sexual contact by a school employee between kindergarten and twelfth grade.

So what can principals do to help prevent and detect sexual misconduct by school staff?

  • Be observant of a student or staff member’s behavior and watch for unexplained changes or patterns that might be suspicious. A sudden special interest in a teacher by a student might warrant suspicion, especially if the interest goes beyond the normal school day.
  • School personnel should investigate all rumors thoroughly. While some rumors will have no merit, staff should report any unusual information to school officials immediately. Personnel should be reassured the allegation will be investigated, all individuals will be treated respectfully, and confidentiality will be strictly maintained.
  • Keep a record of all investigations. It is important to keep a written record of all complaints and investigations. Sometimes it is years later when allegations resurface and as personnel changes or memories fade, a historical perspective will be beneficial to those that must explain or conduct another review of the circumstances surrounding an allegation.
  • Remember to use a Child Abuse Hotline. If the student involved is a minor, error on the side of caution when considering whether or not to "hotline" the situation. If the information provided is not sufficient for the Division of Children’s Services to be involved, they will say so. As mandated reporters, school personnel should make the call and let others decide if further investigation is warranted.
  • Provide staff development to all staff

Professional development on this topic should include the following:

  1. Board Policy related to staff to student sexual harassment and contact
  2. Reporting procedures
  3. Expectations of privacy and confidentiality related to investigations or allegations of inappropriate behavior or conduct
  4. Reminders that all staff are part of the solution related to eliminating this type of destructive behavior
  5. Review of both the Employee and Student Handbook with careful attention paid to the topic of harassment of any kind

NOTE: It is recommended principals ask staff to provide a signature indicating these polices have been reviewed and understood.

Establish a school climate that protects innocent staff from being accused and sets parameters and boundaries for student/staff interaction.

The following tips can help with these efforts: 

  • Physical contact with students should be limited to only that which is necessary. Some students may misconstrue an innocent action by a teacher; consequently, when a staff member puts himself in a position for physical contact, especially on a repeated basis with the same student(s), it can cause some to question the motive.
  • Establish guidelines for giving of gifts and cards to students. Gifts of a personal nature given to any student should be discouraged or have administrative approval. Staff should be requested to alert a supervisor when receiving a gift from a student that may be inappropriate.
  • Except for school sanctioned events and activities, socializing with students outside of school should be prohibited. A number of cases of inappropriate relationships have surfaced when the teacher and a student were seen in a social setting or alone with each other away from school. Staff should be reminded students may misinterpret this type of activity, so the use of sound professional judgment is critical.
  • Staff should use only district issued computers while on the job. Should a complaint arise and an investigation be initiated, the staff member’s school computer should immediately be secured. If personal computers are used at school this may create a legal issue for the investigator.  

While dialogue between principal and staff on this subject may be difficult to initiate, it is a conversation that must occur. Unfortunately, these types of situations happen in our profession and occasionally principals find themselves involved in a personnel investigation related to sexual misconduct. Being proactive and honest with staff regarding expectations, policies and procedures on this topic is a must in the 21st Century.

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