This article is presented with permission from our good friends at Schools Excess Liability Fund Statewide Public Education Agency, Sacramento, California.


By: Steve Sonnich, Associate Administrator, Human Resources, Grossmont Union High School District
Glenn Lipson, Ph.D., Forensic Psychologist
Daniel Shinoff, J.D., School Lawyer

The Problem of Sexual Misconduct in the Schools

Sexual misconduct by school staff with students has become a major problem. Pennsylvania just passed emergency legislation mandating training for all school employees. But there are few training programs available, and both the cause for the sudden rise in sexual misconduct and the solution to the problem are obscure. But the Grossmont Union High School District — beginning in 2009, through the courageous support of the Board of Trustees and Superintendent — began an exploration of both issues and developed an on‐line training program. Although still new, that training program has had positive impacts on the prevention, investigation and understanding of sexual misconduct.

Assessment of the Requirement to Correct the Problem

The Grossmont Administration began development of this training plan by convening a core group of experts in partnership with Human Resources, including noted Forensic Psychologist, Dr. Glenn Lipson and a trial attorney experienced in trying molestation cases, Daniel Shinoff. That team reviewed the literature to determine the outline of the problem.

Sexual misconduct by school staff is a set of several complex problems combined under one heading. There are clinically defined pedophiles, however there are also others who are not so classified, but who nonetheless engage in illegal misconduct.

Often it is these opportunisticpredators who are well respected and admired by students and colleagues that ‘cross the line'. One of the characteristics of these offenders is that they are ordinarily well liked and very personable. Additionally, their colleagues in hindsight state they observed questionable actions, but failed to recognize that what they were observing was misconduct. The result was that they failed to report their observations. Under California law, every school employee is a mandated reporter required to report any “reasonable suspicion" of child abuse. But without substantial training, it is difficult to determine what conduct should raise a suspicion. Investigators are frequently suspicious of reports from children, but there are indications in the literature that there are very few false reports by students.

Development of a School Policy to Prevent Sexual Misconduct

With the research and input of the experts as a starting point, the team met with a wide array of school community members including teachers, classified employees, union representatives, district managers and principals, student leaders, counselors, clergy, parents, and law enforcement. Informed and guided by this collective input, the team began by developing a specific Board Policy regarding appropriate staff-student interactions.

The Board Policy lists specific types of conduct to be avoided as well as conduct to be encouraged. It has emphasis on the legally mandated reporting requirements, but it also incorporates references to the different types of interactions with students, based upon the particular job of the employee. Many types of employees work very closely — and often oneon- one — with students. The success of the Policy ultimately rests on employees using judgment and skills already acquired from working with students, to avoid behavior leading toward misconduct, and to report inappropriate behavior when they have a reasonable suspicion, based on the behavior of others. But the new Policy was only the start of the effort to re-orient staff judgment. Training on the specifics of compliance was absolutely necessary.

Development of a Training Program

The team looked for training programs with the breadth and depth to address the issues in the literature and from the school community, but found none. It was necessary to design a training course from scratch. With the expertise of consultants and the continued guidance and input from a core group of the aforementioned school community, the determination was made to create an on-line interactive computer training program. The result was the on-line course called “Making Right Choices," (referred to as “MRC") designed for All staff including classified, certificated, administrative, substitute, hourly, coaches, etc. Implementation began in August of 2010. More than four thousand (4,000) employees have completed the MRC training. It is now a standard preemployment requirement in the hiring process for all employees.

Assessment of the Training Program

After a significant number of employees had been trained, the team began assessing the results of the training to determine whether the process made a difference, whether the culture had begun to change, and to determine whether there had been any unintended negative consequences. Employees are given a voluntary option to complete an on-line survey following completion of the course. To date, just over seven hundred (700) employees have responded. One of the key responses in the survey is: “As a result of this training, I am better able to recognize behavior that crosses the line." The measurement used is a 5-point scale ranging from “Strongly Agree" to “Strongly Disagree." More than 83% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with this statement.

In practical terms, we are seeing a difference in the employee responses that occur during our Human Resource Investigations. During each of these disciplinary interviews, the Investigator provides the employee with a print-out showing when the employee completed the training. This serves as a contextual background for the allegations and sets the stage for the identification of unacceptable behavior. The Investigator has experienced employees immediately explaining what they did, and also stating they knew and understood the training and the Policy. In some cases, the employee has explained why they did not act in accordance with the MRC training. In others, employees have stated that they recognize that the conduct was inconsistent with the training and/or the Policy. Therefore, the Investigator is able to get to the heart of the matter more quickly. Moving swiftly increases the resolution of these reports and also reduces the spreading of rumors that have damaging after-effects. The training enables the Investigator to clearly and quickly juxtapose conduct with policy and training. This is followed by employees in recent experience accepting responsibility for misconduct, and agreeing to proposed resolutions.

Our experience is indicating that employees report suspicious conduct responsibly and confidentially in situations where they may not have before. It is apparent that reports are being made before more serious behaviors occur. The Administrators respond more swiftly to allegations, resulting in immediate coordination with law enforcement, District H.R., the Superintendent, and the Public Information Officer, permitting more coordinated management of all aspects of these complex and sensitive investigations.

No Negative Consequences

The general acceptance of the training by staff has been very strong. Teaching and instructional support by both classified and certificated staff requires intellectual and emotional connections with students. There was concern that the training would interfere with that teaching interaction by making the instructional process too antiseptic. There was concern the training would produce a flood of complaints pent up from reluctance to report in the past. There was a concern that there might be a spike in false reports by either students or staff. None of these concerns were realized. Human Resources never received a complaint about the training in general. No false reports have been identified. On the contrary, the sense the team has derived from the staff is, “this is good and it's about time."

Work Yet to Be Done

There is much more to be done. Implementation of policies and training of this type must become more widespread to change the culture at large and set a standard of practice in our industry. If school administrations face this challenge, public education will benefit, but more importantly, the schools will be able to prevent sexual misconduct to the benefit of their students and their families.

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