A high school secretary is charged with statutory rape of a student. Another teacher is found with a student in his motel room. A middle school teacher is convicted of molesting three students. What is happening in our schools? How can school districts protect students, as well as prevent false claims and civil lawsuits?
In California, a school district can be found liable for sexual abuse committed by an employee if the court finds the district negligent in hiring or supervising the employee. As a result, all school district employees must be proactive in reporting any action of a fellow employee that appears to be inappropriate, such as:
Does the interaction between a school employee and a student feel uncomfortable to the employee observing it?
Does a school employee have contact with a student after school in a private setting such as at a site off campus?
Does a school employee make “friends” with students?
Does a school employee behave more like the student’s peers than like an adult?
According to Dr. Carla Van Dam in her book Identifying Child Molesters – Preventing Child Sexual Abuse these are indicators that inappropriate conduct may be occurring.
Unfortunately, many employees may turn a blind eye when it comes to inappropriate conduct of their co-workers. A failure to report some suspicion of inappropriate conduct with a student could be used to show negligent supervision, even if that suspicion was witnessed by a fellow employee and not a direct supervisor.
The investigation should involve at least two people for all interviews, investigation and evidence collecting. An attorney should be part of the investigation. Any notes, memos or investigation reports should be directed to counsel so the attorney client privilege attaches. In that way, the documents will not have to be turned over to the other side if litigation ensues. Even though the document is directed to an attorney, other people in the district can still be copied on it.
If there is a report that inappropriate sexual conduct may have occurred, the school district should immediately offer counseling services to every student, parent, family member or staff member who may be affected by the allegation. Even if the molesting employee quits, the investigation must continue and any and all evidence turned over to the police. There can be no agreement with the employee to withhold information, remain silent about the subject of the investigation or stop the investigation.
In order to avoid liability, it is imperative that all employees be proactive. Proactive employees report to the district any conduct which appears suspicious or inappropriate, as well as reporting to the appropriate agency conduct which causes a “reasonable” suspicion that abuse has occurred. It is also imperative that a full and well documented investigation occur and if the investigation reveals that inappropriate sexual conduct has occurred that the police and parents are immediately notified.