Measure Twice, Cut Once 729

Measure Twice, Cut Once 729: Interagency Coordinating of Sexual Harassment or Abuse Investigation

By Mary Jo McGrath, Attorney at Law
Founder, McGrath Systems, Inc.

Your office phone rings and you’re told a student is in tears, saying her classmate has hit her and touched her in a “bad place.” You want action. What to do?!

You remember your training as a mandatory reporter to call Child Protective Services when you suspect child abuse. Since child abuse can occur student to student, regardless of the age of the students involved, the report is made. But your duties have just begun.

Child Protective Services may tell you that because this is not in-home or residential-based abuse the matter is not within their jurisdiction. You are told to call the police. You wonder what to do about your mandatory reporting requirement? Do both. File the written report with CPS and call the police.

Inform the police you have contacted CPS and ask that whatever action is taken be coordinated amoung all the agencies – CPS, the police and the school district. Yes, the school district needs to do its own concurrent investigation. It is not sufficient for the school to wait until the end of the police investigation before it performs its investigative duties (Mills Public School District, OCR Code No. 01-93-1123).

Though we are dealing with child abuse and sexual harassment simultaneously, Title IX of the Federal statutes provides that the school district has an independent duty to investigate school related incidents. The Office of Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education, in its 1997 guidelines for sexual harassment investigations found here (link to below) states:

Sexual Harassment Guidance 1997 – Sexual Harassment Guidance: Harassment of Students by School Employees, Other Students, or Third Parties

In some instances, a complaintant may allege harassing conduct that constitues both sex discrimination and possible criminial conduct. Police investigations or reports may be useful in terms of fact gathering. However, because they use different standards that may not be dispositive under Title IX they do not relieve the school of its duty to respond promptly.
Too often the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Each agency seperately begins its required investigation duties without any coordination. This may result in multiple interviews of the alleged victim and witnesses. Possibly taining the testimony by serial examination of the young people.

Also, an inexperienced interviewer who has not been trained in this highly specialized type of investigation may be sent to check out the situation. The lack of knowledge and experience of the investigator may result in questions that are suggestive and leading or lines of questioning that miss crucial evidence.

Just because the law calls for prompt, objective and thorough investigation, don’t jump into action so fast you fail to coordinate with all agencies involved. Just as important, send a highly trained investigator to conduct the interviews.

Remember, measure twice and cut once. Some mistakes are irretrievable.

“Editors’ note: This article is general in nature and is not intended to replace professional, legal advice.”

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