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Prevention and Protection Episode 39 Transcript

Host: Hello, and welcome to Prevention and Protection, the United Educators Risk Management podcast. Today Jamie Forbes, CEO of Learning Courage, and Melanie Bennett, Risk Management Council at United Educators, will discuss how schools can protect children in a remote learning program from sexual misconduct. Before we begin, a quick reminder that you can find other episodes of the Prevention and Protection podcast, as well as risk management resources, on our website, www.edurisksolutions.org. This and all podcast episodes are also available on iTunes. Now here’s Melanie.

Melanie Bennett: Thank you. I’m Melanie Bennett. Jamie, thank you for joining me today to talk about how schools can protect children from sexual misconduct in this new remote environment.

Jamie Forbes: It’s great to be with you, Melanie. Thanks for inviting me.

Bennett: So let’s start today by talking about your organization, Learning Courage. What is it?

Forbes: Learning Courage is a nonprofit membership organization that’s focused on helping schools reduce and respond to sexual misconduct. We do that primarily by collecting and sharing content related to sexual misconduct prevention and response and sharing that with our school members.

Bennett: Can you tell me more about that and how you came up with the idea?

Forbes: The short version is that I was sexually abused myself, by a teacher in my freshman year at Milton Academy. And I learned firsthand about the impact the experience can have on someone’s life. And then I began working with schools on this issue and realized that there was very little collective wisdom on how to do this work well. Without guidance from peers, many school leaders had to figure out for themselves how to do this work. And I saw a huge need to collect and share these best practices to support both survivors and schools. And that’s what Learning Courage does.

Bennett: Thanks Jamie. So as a result of the pandemic, a lot of schools this year, many for the first time, are working with hybrid or fully online models. Many students are remote. Should schools in these situations rewrite their sexual misconduct policies and procedures?

Forbes: Well, my view is, and the organization’s view is, that they should be looked at on an annual basis regardless of what’s happening in the world. Because we constantly have new things coming at us. This year, of course, and last year, the global pandemic has created lots of change. And some may view these changes as providing less risk because of the online education that many schools are using. And that’s true in some respects. But hybrid learning, and particularly the online aspect, also creates new risk. And so it’s important for schools to understand what those risks are and address them, not just in policies and procedures, but also in handbooks and in training. So that everyone in the school from faculty and staff all the way through students and parents understand the implications and the changes and they’re aware of them and can adhere to them.

Bennett: Great. And when schools are reviewing their policies and procedures this year, are there any additional threats of educator sexual misconduct they should be thinking about that are created because of online learning that might not exist in the in-person learning environment?

Forbes: Absolutely. If you think about the classroom environment, it’s very controlled. You have multiple people sharing the same space. You have dress codes often in terms of what’s permissible for people to wear in class or in school. And so you have a process for controlling those things. And the class runs at the same time of day for everyone. And all of these may be different in remote learning. Instead of a classroom, the teacher and students are often in their own personal spaces. And sometimes students may be participating where they’re most comfortable. For example, they might be in their bedroom. And sometimes even sitting on their own bed. And while you may have dress code expectations, they’re likely to be more challenging to monitor. And adding to that, you may have students participating in different time zones. So all of those factors create risk and they need to be addressed again, just for the sake of clarity, for the safety of everyone, as well.

Bennett: So then should schools create online behavior policies? And if so, what should be included?

Forbes: All of the things that we’ve just talked about, it’s really important that schools clearly define the expectations for behavior for everyone. That includes dress code. It includes backgrounds, if you’re in a remote environment. Maintaining appropriate boundaries, which you don’t initially think about in a remote learning context, but it’s equally applicable. And what to do if those are not being maintained and how to report concerns. The policies need to be clear. They need to be communicated to everyone. They need to be reinforced, so not just talked about once. And they also really need to be followed. And this last piece is as important as all of the previous ones, because it’s one thing to have a policy, but if you don’t follow the policy, that’s where you can run into real challenges. If you’re not maintaining the policy, then it calls into question all of the policies. And that’s where things can go off the rails fairly quickly. That’s where the greatest risk is.

Bennett: We always talk about making sure educators and students are trained on appropriate boundaries – what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate. Are there best practices regarding appropriate boundaries that are specific to the remote environment?

Forbes: Absolutely. By definition, the remote environment is different. Again, going back to what I said earlier about the difference between a classroom, which has a very controlled environment, and a remote learning environment, which you may find students in personal places, in their house, in private places. And those both create risk. There are clear standards in classrooms for maintaining safety and understanding what’s appropriate. But in virtual learning environments, again, you’re talking about personal spaces. So it’s really essential to create clear boundaries and establish and maintain them. What’s visible in the background? What time of day is appropriate to communicate? What kind of frequency of communication is appropriate? And participants may have different behavior in online settings. And some of that is reasonable and acceptable. The most important thing really is to define and maintain the rules so that everyone understands what is appropriate and what’s not, and what to do about it if things are not appropriately maintained.

Bennett: I know through your work with Learning Courage, you’ve been in touch with a lot of schools this year. Are schools with remote programs seeing a decrease in educator sexual misconduct reports?

Forbes: It’s a great question. And I’m certainly curious to hear your perspective on this as well. I believe it’s too soon for us to really know for sure. And it’s an essential one for us to keep track of. But if you think about it, these incidents generally aren’t uncovered when they’re happening. It’s something that takes some time to percolate. And some you do learn about, but only if those relationship details are shared. So if you think about it, you might only learn about something if a student shares with another student, and then one of those students identifies that as inappropriate and chooses to report it. Or a faculty member, perhaps, might share details with another faculty member. And those are the ways that you learn about those things. But oftentimes it takes months, if not years, for those things to come to the surface.

So typically they don’t come to the surface because those involved know it’s forbidden. And that’s why it’s critical to establish guidelines and communicate them with everyone in the community. Because everyone plays a role in preventing misconduct. It’s of course most critical that the educators create and maintain appropriate boundaries. It’s also important for the students to understand what safe boundaries are and the role in keeping students safe and what students can do when they observe that those boundaries are not being maintained.

Bennett: I agree with you that we’ll have to continue to watch and see any trends that may appear regarding sexual misconduct reports in the remote environment. And you were talking a bit about encouraging reporting and how we can continue to do that. Do you have any thoughts on schools with remote programs, how they can best encourage students to report any sexual misconduct?

Forbes: Well, the most important thing is to make sure that there’s a process in place that people are aware of and that they trust – because trust is such a critical part of having a system that works. We recommend a confidential and anonymous reporting system because it removes the concern that some might have about reporting something that’s highly sensitive to someone they don’t know. And it also removes the possibility that they might be found out as someone who reports. And as we all know, some kids don’t like a snitch. So there’s that peer pressure against reporting oftentimes and an anonymous system really helps guard against that.

Not every school has these systems. But at a minimum, there has to be a clear process. If you don’t have an anonymous reporting system, there have to be clear guidelines and a process that everyone knows and it’s easy to access. And the confidentiality piece is absolutely critical too. There has to be a provision also for amnesty in case incidents include other activities that are against school rules. It may include alcohol or drug use, for example. So these are some of the important things to consider for schools in reporting sexual misconduct.

Bennett: Thank you so much, Jamie. I want to thank you again for joining us today. That’s all the time we have for today.

Forbes: Thanks Melanie. It was a pleasure and hopefully we can do it again sometime.

Host: From United Educators Insurance, this is the Prevention and Protection podcast. For additional United Educators resources, please visit our website, www.edurisksolutions.org.