THE debate on the need for effective school policies to address child sexual abuse (CSA) has restarted. What is an effective CSA policy for schools and what should the government-regulated guidelines be?
Such policies must clarify definitions of child protection, CSA and exploitation, adult sexual harassment, and professional misconduct to ensure appropriate reporting and response. This clarity would help address age-related dynamics of sexual abuse that are distinct from adult sexual harassment, as well as illuminate how shame, secrecy, grooming and power dynamics play out differently in child abuse of a sexual nature from other forms of abuse.
Moreover, schools would have the freedom to define offences that are currently covered in administrative law or the criminal justice system as well as those that aren’t but would still be considered as professional misconduct. It would also ensure that CSA-related policy doesn’t become watered down within more generic school behavioural policies.
Any effective school CSA policy should ideally cover staff codes of conduct and training; prevention and awareness; reporting, investigation and response. All male and female school employees must sign a staff sexual misconduct code covering appropriate and inappropriate behaviours, followed by regular trainings to reinforce it. Abusers commonly use emails, text messages and social media to groom children. The shift to online teaching in most schools due to the pandemic makes inclusion of online communication guidelines all the more relevant.
How can schools ensure the protection of children from abuse?
Preventive aspects include CSA information and confidence-building life skills for students. Students must also be informed about how adults groom children by offering favours, normalising inappropriate behaviour, or making them believe that it is consensual. Schools need to ensure that support is available for vulnerable students, eg those experiencing problems at home, self-esteem and academic difficulties, or with disabilities. Special preventive measures are needed for students in after-school programmes and on school trips. Younger children require much more active monitoring, including clear guidelines for those who assist with their practical needs. Awareness programmes for parents could also strengthen the school’s preventive efforts.
Procedures for reporting sexual misconduct of a school employee must be explained in an age-appropriate manner to students and placed visibly in the school. They should mention who within the school are nominated to receive in-person as well as anonymous reports. The limits to confidentiality in cases that require further investigation should also be clearly communicated. Parents and staff must also be informed of these reporting procedures.
Reported incidents must be shared in a timely manner with a school’s child protection committee, which could include representation from the staff and parent body. Opportunistic or grooming dynamics of abuse, gender and culturally ascribed norms that lead to victim blaming or minimise the seriousness of abuse, ethical handling of cases, responding to false accusations, etc, must be part of the training of employees tasked with reporting and investigation.
The committee can further notify the victim’s parents and take required action. Counselling support for the victim(s) and, in cases where abuse is more widespread, group sessions with students are some other important decisions to be taken by such committees.
Currently, both public and private schools are not mandated through any approved guidelines by a competent authority to develop CSA prevention and response policies. Provincial and federal education departments can take the lead and set an example by first implementing such guidelines for government schools. The roles of and coordination between provincial social welfare, child protection, health and criminal justice departments need to be defined in these guidelines.
The guidelines also need to spell out how schools would report to a central authority about employees charged with sexual offence and misconduct so that a registry can be maintained. In the US, rehiring of teachers who have previously offended remains a huge challenge due to legal loopholes. Commonly termed as ‘passing the trash’, studies estimate that, on average, a teacher who has offended may be passed to three different district schools before actually being identified and stopped.
Involving private school associations, the Private Educational Institutions Regulatory Authority and student bodies can ensure increased ownership and on-going learning. Mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that following these policies and reporting sexual abuse would actually be seen as a sign of a child-safe school rather than a source of bad repute or a tool to vilify private schools for other vested interests.
The writer is a clinical psychologist.
Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2020