We’ve all cringed when we hear the sound bite for the evening news promising to give the juicy details of a scandal involving a local school district. You hold your breath, waiting to hear whether it’s your district. You exhale deeply whenever you learn that it is somebody else’s problem and their turn to reply “no comment” to media inquiries. But are there steps your district can take to reduce the chance that next time it won’t be your turn? Whether there’s a rise in incidents or merely an increase in the reporting of incidents is unknown, but it seems that every month or so there is a new story of a school employee engaged in something inappropriate. Some of those stories end up in court, like the two incidents mentioned elsewhere in this newsletter. Other incidents are merely tried by the media in the court of public opinion. The question that remains is whether your district can do more to minimize the possibility that an incident occurs at all.
The following suggestions are offered as precautions your district can take, pre- and post-hiring, to attempt to head off issues of inappropriate behavior by staff members. Keep in mind that these suggestions are offered without regard to what your district’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with a particular employee group may require. To that end, some of these suggestions may need to be modified or discarded if implementing them would give rise to a grievance by an employee group.
One of the easiest ways to avoid trouble spots is to scrutinize your district’s pre-hiring screening process. No pre-hiring process is fool-proof, of course, and some problems may not develop until after a person has been employed for a period of time, but there are steps your district can take to identify and minimize issues.
1. Conduct better interviews. One of the best precautions is to examine whether your interview process contains questions to identify whether potential staff members lack the necessary maturity to conduct themselves properly with students. Some positions always require interviews, while other positions of lesser importance sometimes never include an interview process. The better practice is to conduct even brief interviews for any position where there is a potential for student contact. Your interview team should ask a few questions to applicants for positions involving student contact to inquire whether potential employees can meaningfully articulate the standards of conduct you expect of them. Consider the following kinds of questions to gauge an individual’s maturity level:
- What’s your approach to reprimanding or disciplining students?
- What would you do if a student attempted to curry favor with you or befriend you to receive preferential treatment?
- What communication boundaries do you believe are appropriate with students?
- Do you think school employees should maintain a distance between themselves and students?
2. Make sure clearances are complete. Act 34 and 151 require school employees to obtain clearances to ensure that their criminal backgrounds are checked and that no allegations of child abuse have been lodged against them. It is state law that your district obtain these clearances for employees. You should conduct an internal audit to ensure that clearances are being requested, received and filed in a timely and thorough manner. Further, while the law sets a minimum for compliance, consider whether you may want to impose a more rigorous standard and update clearances periodically during an individual’s employment.
There are several steps your district can take with its workforce to target improper staff behavior. Implementing these precautions as part of your standard practice can prevent inappropriate acts, and in situations where acts cannot be prevented, such routine practices can demonstrate to a court, if need be, that your district is serious in preventing and investigating allegations of impropriety.
- Mentor new staff members. Consider establishing a program whereby your new staff members are assigned to a veteran employee who meets with them and provides guidance concerning their obligations as employees. A mentoring program can reinforce expectations of conduct and ensure that employees have an outlet for discussing matters in a nonthreatening context. Any mentoring program should include training for the mentors so that the district can be clear about its expectations for the program.
- Establish clear guidelines for student-staff communications. Is it clear to your staff members what communications they may have with students? Is it set forth in Board policy or other written guidance? Are employees permitted to call or text-message students for any reason? What about e-mail from district and non-district accounts? What about online interactions such as chat rooms and social networking sites? Which communications must be made only through parents? There are a litany of ways for students and employees to communicate and, sadly, to facilitate improper relationships. Your district should have internal discussions about proper and improper communications and document those discussions in writing, preferably in Board policy. Periodically remind your staff of your expectations, and take appropriate action if those expectations are not met. Having a history of ignoring warning signs or not enforcing your own policies is not the place to be.
- Conduct regular in-service discussions about these issues. Your district should have written policies concerning sexual harassment and abuse and a procedure to address complaints. When was the last time you in-serviced your staff on their obligations under these policies? You should do so at least annually, and document the in-service by retaining a copy of the distributed materials and having employees sign in to indicate attendance. Have you had instances where complaints are lodged? If so, you should review the procedures that were in place and the investigation that was completed to determine whether it was done efficiently and promptly.
The preceding are a few measures your district can implement to head off problems before they happen. Some situations are impossible to foresee, but it is best for your district to feel, at the least, that you’ve done everything within your power to prevent an appearance on the 11:00 news.