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Risk & Compliance: Sexual Abuse Prevention Is HR’s Role — and Everyone Else’s Too

By Net Assets posted 02-01-2018 10:52 AM


Human Resources |

Statements like “We’ve never had an incident” support an atmosphere of complacency.

Article by Aaron Lundberg, Praesidium

From the January/February 2018 Net Assets magazine

By now, no school should believe itself immune to the potential for sexual abuse on campus. The scope of the problem is huge — an estimated 10 percent of schoolchildren have been a victim of educator sexual misconduct. And while some 80 percent of incidents are never reported, the snowballing pace of allegations virtually assures that more schools will face scrutiny for their past, present and future actions (or inactions). The effect can be devastating reputationally, financially and in terms of morale and productivity.

Praesidium has reviewed approximately 4,000 cases involving abuse allegations, and through careful analysis we’ve learned that the risk is preventable if an organization takes a sustainable, comprehensive approach. A school’s human resources function plays a critical role in preventing abuse (as well as false allegations of abuse) from happening, but the entire organization must be on board. Best practice standards must be clear and enforced. Everyone must take warning signs seriously, and everyone must report their concerns — whether it means approaching the adult as their “advocate” with a concerned reminder, or taking the risk of creating some discomfort in the collegial school environment.

Here’s some of what we know.

  • Background checks, while important, identify fewer than 5 percent of perpetrators of sexual abuse. Compliance with background checks, and mandated-reporting requirements, etc. is not sufficient.
  • Juveniles commit 40 to 50 percent of child molestations.
  • Offenders operate most effectively when three factors are present: access, privacy and control.
  • Among adult offenders, 90 percent of their behavior is “positive.” They’re often exceptional teachers and gifted at connecting with kids. Those attributes often allow schools to overlook the other 10 percent of “red flag” behaviors that may constitute boundary violations.
  • Statements such as “We know everyone here” and “We’ve never had an incident” support an atmosphere of complacency.

Institutional Norms

Sexual abuse is a low-frequency, high-effect threat that schools often address mainly at the surface level, through annual training and the like, due in part to competing demands for time and the naturally close relationships that form in schools. The screening and interview process is a school’s first opportunity to weed out potential offenders and attract better applicants; it is also a school’s first line of defense in the event of litigation. Document everything.

Red Flags in Job Applicants

While no single red flag behavior or indicator is typically cause for concern, the existence of several merits additional scrutiny during the screening and hiring process.

  • Gaps in dates (of employment, residence)
  • Incorrect, omitted and/or incomplete information on an application
  • Unstable work history
  • Vague reasons for leaving previous jobs
  • Unwillingness to use former supervisors as references
  • Short-term relationships with references
  • Seems overeducated or overqualified for position
  • Patterns or themes of preferences for a particular age range
  • Patterns or themes of problems with authority
  • Learned about position without a clear connection
  • Patterns of difficulty managing stressful situations
  • History of crossing boundaries with children

One often-overlooked remedy is to deter potential perpetrators from even considering employment at your school. Offenders look for vulnerabilities in organizations providing access to children. You’ll be less likely to attract them by being explicit at every turn — in your employment listings, on your website, in conversations and so on — about your school’s values and the precautions you take to protect children.

Further assess and mitigate abuse risks by exploring red flags in reference checks and questions on your application. Go both wide (national) and deep (county level) in background checks in order to understand gaps or reveal omissions.

Ask behaviorally based interview questions that explore candidates’ actual reactions in the past rather than how they “would” respond hypothetically. These questions typically begin, “Tell me about a time . . .” or “How did you . . . ?” The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

Above all, HR should also play a leading role in implementing and standardizing policies and procedures related to student safety. Every school must define its own boundaries and expectations, based on its culture and mission. Strive to create an “institutional memory” that clearly defines boundaries and expectations and provides ongoing training that helps everyone (staff and volunteers) identify and respond in a similar way. This helps someone comfortably — even as a friendly advocate — refer to policy if they see a colleague texting with a student or meeting with a student behind a closed door. Standardized polices can also prevent certain behaviors that may seem harmless individually from rising to the level of abuse.

Aaron Lundberg is president and CEO of Praesidium, a national leader in abuse risk management that helps schools and other organizations protect children from abuse by employees, volunteers or other program participants. As an NBOA Affinity Partner, Praesidium provides uniquely discounted workshops and other services and monthly tips to NBOA member schools. 

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