Taking the Side of Safety

“Cases of child abuse in the church” by Christian Seebauer,
via Wikimedia Commons

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Experts on sexual abuse by educators have some good news for schools: the problem is largely preventable through a combination of steps that make it difficult for would-be predators to operate.

But they also have some sobering news. Adopting best practices for preventing abuse will require cultural changes in Episcopal schools in particular and private schools in general when entrenched norms have made abuse easier.

“I do see more boundaries crossed in independent schools than I see in public schools,” said Charol Shakeshaft, a national expert on educator sexual misconduct and a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Education. “It’s not always for bad reasons. It’s just that there’s often a culture that isn’t paying attention to what is safe and healthy, and what might lead people to another place.”

Preventing sexual abuse has become a pressing priority for private schools, including nearly 1,200 Episcopal schools, as fallout continues from The Boston Globe Spotlight Team’s investigations. More than 100 private schools in New England, including at least three Episcopal boarding schools, have faced allegations of sexual misconduct in the past 40 years. In nine of 31 cases examined by the Globe, schools wrote recommendations for the accused and effectively covered up the scandals.

Episcopal schools will soon have more details on what they should be doing to not repeat the horrors of the past. A guide is expected in mid-2017 from a joint task force of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and the Association of Boarding Schools (TABS).

In the meantime, experts want to help administrators of parish schools and Episcopal boarding schools learn what prevents sexual abuse. Shakeshaft emphasizes the importance of training for school workers, but she finds Episcopal institutions are not vigilant about doing it.

Unlike Roman Catholic dioceses, which uniformly require all school workers to be trained in boundary awareness and abuse prevention, not all Episcopal dioceses require such training for school workers. Sometimes rectors, including those overseeing church schools, likewise are not trained, Shakeshaft said.

“There are a lot of lapses in the training that would be helpful both in Episcopal schools and in a lot of the youth organizations that are connected with Episcopal life,” said Shakeshaft, a member of St. James’s Church in Richmond and an adviser to the Diocese of Virginia on sexual abuse prevention.

Most important, experts say, is to prevent the grooming of would-be victims. Grooming consists of behaviors designed to win trust and hide illicit relationships, from extending special favors to arranging times for clandestine meetings.

Such prevention involves maintaining healthy boundaries. Warning flags need to go up when a teacher drives a student alone in a car, or frequently calls someone out of class, or routinely waits outside a classroom, said Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation (SESAME), an advocacy group based in Las Vegas.

Prevention begins with clear policies that ban sexual harassment, set boundaries, and specify what constitutes a boundary violation, said Billie-Jo Grant, a member of SESAME’s board.

A good policy, she said, prohibits faculty and staff from being alone with a student in a room with a closed door. It bans communicating with individual students on a personal cellphone or an unmonitored social-media account. Public schools must have such policies, but independent schools often do not have them because they are not required.

“Those are all boundary-crossing behaviors that allow sexual misconduct to occur,” said Grant, senior researcher and evaluator for Magnolia Consulting in Charlottesville, Virginia, who secured a Department of Justice grant to study educator sexual misconduct. “These are warning signs of grooming behaviors.”

Setting such policies can trigger pushback in private schools. Grant says she has heard educators lament how strict boundaries might discourage or vilify teachers who go the extra mile for their students with nothing but good intentions. But she says good teachers can still build healthy relationships with students by following protocols that reduce risk through monitoring and other safeguards.

For example, schools can require that communication occurs through online applications such as Edmodo, which offer built-in monitoring. With monitored messaging, a third party might not read every message, but an algorithm can send alerts to a designated recipient when troublesome patterns emerge. In these systems, appropriate conversations between teacher and student occur as usual, but abusers and their victims have nowhere to store secrets.

Episcopal schools would do well, Grant added, to use safe-church protocols, such as installing doors with windows and assuring that individual adults are never left alone with individual minors.

Private schools sometimes resist optional changes that feel either awkward or unnecessary, said Shakeshaft, who serves on the NAIS-TABS task force. She notes how schools sometimes take pride in having a trusting, family-style, and innovative environment and resent encroachments that bring new rules.

“This may infringe upon what teachers feel is their autonomy and best teaching practice, so it’s a cultural change that might be hard to make happen,” she said.

Some schools are not waiting for the task force report but are already taking action. St. George’s School in Middletown, Rhode Island, is among those drawing plaudits for new prevention measures.

An Episcopal school on a seaside bluff, St. George’s is recovering from a sexual abuse crisis that involved multiple employees and resulted in a 2016 settlement with about 30 victims.

New procedures, which independent investigator Martin Murphy hails as first rate, now include boundary awareness training in multi-hour seminars for all faculty and staff; checking criminal backgrounds on all employees and other adults who live on campus; and working with an expert consultant to create a response team that will address any future allegations of abuse.

Training is crucial, experts say, and needs to involve the whole community. Schools miss the mark when only students are taught to watch for warning signs of grooming, boundary violations, or sexual misconduct, said Miller of SESAME.

“It has been solely put on the children how to prevent child sexual abuse: how to tell good touch, bad touch, good secret, bad secret,” Miller said. “The problem with only training children is that you’re teaching children to tell when something has happened. That means the child is already a victim, and we want to prevent a child from becoming a victim in the first place.”

Schools can be reluctant to hold awareness-raising events. Administrators may fear that openly addressing the issue implies that a problem exists, Shakeshaft said.

But avoiding the topic is a mistake, she added, because addressing it reinforces a culture of vigilance. It also affirms transparency and safety as core values that are more important than protecting a school’s public image at all costs.

In screening job applicants, experts insist that religious schools need to hold themselves to higher standards than the law requires and investigate every candidate’s work history. They should ask former employers whether misconduct allegations ever surfaced and press for more information, said Carmen Durso, a Boston attorney who represents victims in their cases against private schools, including Episcopal institutions.

Conducting that level due diligence is crucial, Durso said, because predators tend to seek new jobs in private schools. They do so with hopes of flying under the radar by going through a system that does not require background checks and tends to assume candidates coming from other well-respected schools must be trustworthy.

How a school responds to abuse allegations can help prevent both recurrence of sexual abuse and false allegations. The rule of thumb: if what is alleged is a crime, notify law enforcement and cooperate with the investigation. This weeds out false accusations and exonerates the innocent. An educator will not be charged or convicted unless sufficient evidence supports the claim. It also puts would-be abusers on notice that abusive behavior will not be hidden but will carry legal consequences.

Private schools should also designate two individuals to receive all allegations and initiate next steps. (Having just one is insufficient because a potential abuser could thwart true allegations.) Having at least one officer for abuse cases would mirror a best practice that’s required in public schools yet remains optional in private ones.

“You say: We prohibit these types of grooming behaviors, and if you have a problem, here’s who you go to,” Grant said. “Even the public schools struggle with this because they might appoint a Title IX officer [to receive complaints], but no one knows who that Title IX officer is and they don’t know what specific types of behaviors are prohibited.”

Observers say private-school administrators can sometimes be hesitant to call law enforcement when allegations surface. They may fear , for instance, that unwanted media attention could harm the institution.

But experts caution that trying to handle investigations in-house can be a costly mistake. Grant said that’s because board members, administrators, faculty, or staff can be guilty of at least a misdemeanor if they know of serious allegations and do not report them to authorities. In some states, failure to report child sexual abuse allegations to law enforcement constitutes a felony.

“If we normalize that if there’s ever any possibility then we’re going to have it investigated, what we’re saying is that we’re on the side of safety,” Shakeshaft said. “So we might investigate things that don’t turn out to be there. But we’d rather err on the side of over-investigation than letting a child be harmed.”

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