As we turn the page to summer break, it is not too early for independent school leaders to think about the next school year and plan for back-to-school training of faculty and staff. Independent schools would be wise to conduct training on such topics as harassment prevention, mandated reporting, appropriate boundaries with students, and strategies for identifying and responding to mental health concerns. Coupled with clear written policies and procedures, training provides an interactive way for employees to learn, ask questions, and be reminded of their obligations in the workplace. Below we have outlined some of the key issues and examples of state-specific requirements that independent schools should consider when conducting such training.
Harassment prevention training helps independent schools promote a safe work environment that is free of hostility, intimidation, and other offenses that might interfere with an employee's work performance. Harassment can take many forms, including but not limited to, offensive jokes, physical assaults, pranks, or violence. Harassment can also be sexual – examples of sexual harassment may include unwanted sexual advances, demands for sexual favors, or verbal abuse that is sexually oriented.
Independent schools that conduct harassment prevention training or have an anti-harassment policy in place can use this training and these policies as a partial affirmative defense. To effectively raise this partial affirmative defense, independent schools should conduct harassment prevention training for all employees and outline the process for making an effective internal complaint. In addition, employees should acknowledge that they have completed the training.
Many states require employers to provide training on sexual harassment specifically. The following are examples of certain state requirements for such training.
- New York: New York City requires employers with 15 or more employees to provide annual sexual harassment prevention training for all employees. New York State requires all employers, regardless of size, to provide annual sexual harassment prevention training for all employees.
- California: Independent schools with five or more employees are required to provide sexual harassment prevention training for their nonsupervisory and supervisory employees. Nonsupervisory employees must receive at least one hour of training every two years, while supervisory employees must receive at least two hours of training every two years.
- Hawaii: All employers are strongly encouraged to provide sexual harassment prevention training and adopt a prevention program that trains employees about the employer's sexual harassment policy and grievance procedures. Employers are also encouraged to train supervisory personnel about their specific responsibilities.
Certain individuals, by the nature of their profession, are legally obligated to report instances of child abuse and neglect. These individuals are known as "mandated reporters," and they often consist of teachers, school officials, and other individuals who interact with children. It would be wise for independent schools to provide training to mandated reporters regarding their reporting obligations, and when and where reports should be made. It is important that schools provide a clear process for employees to follow when faced with a mandatory reporting situation, including internal reporting channels and documentation requirements.
Many states, including New York and the District of Columbia, require employers to provide training to mandated reporters regarding their reporting obligations.
Independent schools are not immune to the mental health challenges impacting students and adults alike following the COVID-19 pandemic, racial reckoning, and global unrest. Schools may see mental health issues displayed in a variety of ways, including behavioral issues, increased unexcused absences, and substance abuse. It is not always clear when individuals are experiencing mental health challenges, as some individuals do not show symptoms or signs that their mental health is suffering. It would be wise for independent schools to include a discussion of mental health issues to help employees identify when a student or colleague is experiencing mental health challenges and where to report those concerns or find support.
Independent schools should be mindful of confidentiality obligations when discussing an individual's mental health with others. For example, a school may want its counselor to speak with a student's outside therapist to best support the student. A proper release should be obtained from the student's parents in order to facilitate such communications. Internally, school counselors and nurses should receive training on when certain information should or must be shared with other school faculty or administrators.
The Venable Independent School Law team is available to provide training to independent schools. Independent schools with questions are encouraged to contact Caryn Pass, Grace Lee, Janice Gregerson, Ashley Sykes, or Imani Menard.