Legally Speaking

Abuse Prevention

Sexual abuse is the single biggest liability risk schools face. Settlements and verdicts nationwide regularly exceed $1 million per claim. Many situations involve multiple victims, all of whom file claims, pushing defense and indemnity costs to potentially catastrophic levels. In addition, school districts may face indefinite exposures in some cases with limited to no statutory defenses.

Make sure schools are prepared. Mandated reporter training is required to take place in the first six weeks of the school year.

The Challenge Persists

A 2017 report from the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, entitled “Ending Sexual Harassment and Assault: Effective Measures Protect All Students,” sets the stage with some key definitions, data, and recommendations, summarized below:

Harassment includes any unwelcome behavior that is sexual in nature, including name-calling, unwanted sexual advances, acts of physical aggression, posting of inappropriate images or messages, or other actions that may be threatening, humiliating, or harmful.

General harassment starts as early as elementary school with 75 percent called names, made fun of, or bullied. Nearly half of all teachers see the issue as a very or somewhat serious problem at their school.

At the middle and high school levels, 56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys experienced sexual harassment during 2010-11 school year (30 percent of it in electronic form), and 85 percent of LGBTQ student experienced verbal harassment.

Recommendations for stakeholders included having Title IX coordinators train relevant staff on reporting; parents, students and advocates contact a local school’s Title IX coordinator; state and federal officials help ensure tracking and reporting; and schools conduct school climate surveys.

Title IX Spells It Out

Title IX regulations are quite specific on the definition of harassment and what schools need to do to address it. These stipulations apply to any sexual harassment that the school either knows about or reasonably should have known about, which precludes willful ignorance. Be aware that having an anti-bullying policy is not enough.

The U.S. Department of Education has “Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence” covering topics such as a school’s obligation to respond to sexual violence; confidentiality; investigations, hearings and appeals; remedies and notice of outcome; training, education and prevention; and retaliation.

A copy of this foundational document can be viewed at www.keenan.com.

Best Practices Offer Solutions

Is your house in order when it comes to maintaining a comprehensive child/student abuse prevention program? Here are five pillars that can serve as the foundation of an effective program:

Mandated Reporter Training — This is an important legal requirement for school districts. All district employees must be trained within the first six weeks of the start of each school year and new hires must be trained within the first six weeks of their hire. Tracking, reporting, and retaining a record of this is critical. Districts should display Mandated Reporter posters at each school site listing phone numbers of child protective services and police.

Abuse Behavior and Recognition Training — District employees, specifically school administrators, need to be educated, trained, and provided with tools to identify suspicious behaviors and know when to take action. This practice helps establish a culture that makes it difficult for child abusers to operate within schools.

Boundary Assessment & Awareness — Districts should establish, document, communicate, and enforce boundaries for employee-student interaction for all aspects of the educational experience—including before, during, and after school extra-curricular activities.

Supervision Protocols — District employees should be trained in appropriate supervision protocols. Many sexual abuse claims involve sexual encounters between students, and negligent supervision is often cited as a factor.

Anonymous Reporting — Valuable tools such as WeTip and Keenan SafeSchools Alert expand a school’s the safety net by making it easy for parents, volunteers, and students to anonymously report potential abuse. The sooner the district and authorities are aware of a situation, the sooner they can act to protect children.

In addition, from an insurance standpoint, here are two things to consider. If you carry a third-party general liability policy, check to make sure it covers assault and abuse. And, after an instance of inappropriate conduct has been reported, notify your claims administrator immediately rather than waiting until a claim is filed.

More information, training materials, sample policies and other downloadable resources for schools are available for free at the Keenan School Safety Center at www.keenan.com/school-safety-center.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of School Planning & Management.

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