Educator Sexual Misconduct Pt 1

Sexual Abuse Rumors are Gold! Mine Them for the Truth Part 1 of a 2 part Newsletter Series

By Mary Jo McGrath, Attorney at Law

It’s an encounter every principal dreads: A worried parent makes accusations about sexualized conduct between a student and a teacher, based only on a rumor his child told him. The parent then demands, “What are you going to do about it?”

Then and there the site administrator makes the kinds of mistakes that most often lead to litigation involving sexual harassment or sexual abuse by educators. Unfortunately, here’s what many principals do:

  • They put the burden of proof on the concerned parent, or whoever may report the rumor, demanding “facts” before they will look into the issue.
  • They grill the parent to determine the source of the rumor.
  • They dismiss the rumor as some kid trying to get attention.
  • They feel they know that the accused adult would never behave in that way, and so reject the possibility out-of-hand that the rumor may be true.

The Right Action

Never ignore a rumor about adult-to-student behavior. Rumors are pure gold. If they are tracked down to their source, they will most often lead you to tangible evidence of misconduct. In my 30 years conducting investigations of sexual misconduct in schools, I have never investigated a rumor of this nature that turned out to be false.

As distasteful as rumors are to most adults, rumors are a community’s communication system. If a rumor persists over time, it most often is emanating from events that have actually occurred.

As an administrator, you have a duty to protect the student and your district. Once you hear a rumor that a teacher is behaving inappropriately toward a student, you must act. The onus and legal liability is on the school district to follow up on the rumor and determine its validity.

There are four key actions to take in response to a rumor.

  1. When a student, employee or community member brings a rumor to you, give them your complete attention. Make sure you understand what is being reported, where the rumor was first heard, and who may be involved.
  2. Activate a Response Team to investigate the rumor. Each district should have a trained Response Team, consisting of administrators from every building and the district’s human resources director. Under no circumstances should an administrator be involved in inquiring into anything at her or his own site dealing with adult-to-student behavior.
  3. If the veracity of the rumor cannot be directly determined, the appointed Response Team members should conduct an environmental scan to identify parties who may have access to information that would substantiate or dismiss the rumor. Response Team members must be highly trained to conduct an environmental scan, and in how to interview potential witnesses. Properly trained personnel will be able to determine the credibility of interview subjects and protect the privacy of all parties.
  4. Fulfill your Mandatory Reporter obligation. Report suspected child abuse to authorities sooner, rather than later. Don’t wait for your administrative inquiry or investigation to be complete. Alert the proper authorities and let them sort it out, while your administrative investigation proceeds.

Our next installment will explain the relationship between administrative and criminal investigations. They are not mutually exclusive.

McGrath Training Systems provides a complete curriculum on recognizing the early warning signs and investigating sexual harassment and misconduct in schools. For more information, visit the Sexual Abuse and Misconduct section of our website, or call 800/733-1638.

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