The highest priority for any independent school is ensuring the safety and security of the students committed to its care. Central to meeting this responsibility is establishing and enforcing appropriate boundaries between students and employees. In this newsletter, we will review some of the common issues independent schools should consider as they establish and communicate their policies on appropriate interactions.
Be Sure to Communicate Not Only What, but Why
It can be all too easy to dismiss expectations for appropriate professional boundaries as a limit on an employee's ability to "connect" with a student, or as restrictions on their off-duty conduct or their ability to earn outside income. It is important to remember, and to remind employees, that common expectations for appropriate professional boundaries are not developed in a vacuum. Boundary expectations are generally developed out of past experience—whether in the distant or more recent past—with "red flag" behaviors that, left unchecked, created an environment for abuse and sexual misconduct.
These "red flag" behaviors are commonly called "grooming behaviors." One of the most effective strategies for preventing child sexual abuse is identifying and intervening early on when grooming behaviors occur. Grooming behaviors, such as demonstrating favoritism, giving a student gifts, engaging with students on a peer-like level, sharing details about one's personal life to a student, and soliciting information regarding the student's personal life, can be indicators of an individual's propensity to engage in serious acts of child sexual misconduct. Even when not an indicator of an individual's propensities, these behaviors leave students confused or uncertain as to appropriate adult interactions—creating the opportunity for future harm.
It is important that all members of the school community understand that the why behind boundary policies to ensure that a school is doing all it can to meet its obligation to ensure the safety and security of its students.
Identifying Boundary Expectations
Below are some of the most common areas where independent schools set expectations for boundaries. In setting its own policy, it is important for an independent school to assess where it may have additional areas of risk due to the nature of its program. Notably, while the guidance below addresses common boundaries observed during the course of the normal school year or school day, it will be important to also understand and establish additional necessary expectations when students and employees are away from school, for such activities as school-related travel or at athletic or extracurricular competitions.
Address On-Campus Interactions
Addressing how employees and students interact with one another while on campus and engaging in school-related activities is important. Employees must understand that they may not engage in peer-like behavior—that their role is one of adult and mentor, not friend. It is their responsibility to enforce the school's expectations for student conduct, and to do so consistently. Similarly, the school must stipulate and impose restrictions on physical contact in a manner that reflects the age(s) and developmental level(s) of the students served, as well as nature of the program and activity. Employees must also understand that they should not single students out for inappropriate individualized attention, or give students gifts.
Authorized Communication Platforms
Generally, school employees should use only their school-assigned email addresses to communicate with students and, similarly, should use only the student's school-assigned email address. Employees should not be permitted to email students from any personal email address that the employee maintains.
Employees should similarly be prohibited from calling or texting students on their cell phones and may not provide students with the employee's personal cell phone number. There may be limited instances in extracurriculars or travel that call for the use of text as a means of communication. Such use of cell phones should be the exception, and not the rule, and should be limited to communicating logistical information or in the event of an emergency. Alternatively, schools can consider using a secure application that would enable text messaging, but on a school-approved channel.
Interactions on Social Media
Interactions between school employees and students blur the professional boundaries between them, as the employee and student will have an additional "line of sight" into each other's off-campus life, as well as an additional means of communication, which is not necessarily strictly monitored. Relatedly, social media connections between employees and students tend to reflect the employee's propensity for engaging in peer-like behavior, as opposed to acting as an appropriate adult mentor.
For these reasons, schools should prohibit employees from interacting with students through any non-school account on social media platforms.
Expectations Regarding School Employees' Off-Campus Interactions with Currently Enrolled Families
When school employees engage in personal relationships with families of students, this can quickly blur the lines that define what is considered an appropriate interaction between school staff and students. Attending family social functions or vacationing with families can create a perception of favoritism. When parents hire school employees to perform personal services for them, such as dog sitting, housesitting, babysitting, or tutoring at the family's home, it can create an overly personal relationship. This type of relationship may cause students and parents to excuse or overlook behaviors by the employee that would otherwise raise red flags.
By preventing off-campus, unsupervised interactions between school employees and students, the school can help to enforce the professional boundaries between employees and families and prevent situations that could later develop into abuse. Thus, the school should seriously consider limiting or prohibiting an employee's attendance at family social functions, and prohibiting employees from working in the homes of currently enrolled families for any purpose. Similarly, students should not be permitted to babysit, house-sit, or perform any other types of work at employees' homes.
Explain the Expectations for Interactions, Both to Employees and to Parents
Boundary expectations are commonly described in employee handbooks and are often the subject of back-to-school training or periodic professional development days. However, it is also important to include a discussion of these expectations in communications with parents as well. Parent awareness not only ensures that employees are not placed in the difficult position of having to decline a parent's request (for example, a request for babysitting), but also ensures that parents can monitor the off-campus or online behaviors that the school may not necessarily be aware of.
For example, parents and guardians are in a better position to monitor their children's social media accounts. Ensuring that parents also understand the school's expectations of its staff with regard to communicating with students on social media will better enable parents to identify and report violations of that expectation.
Create a Culture of Reporting
To ensure that the school is notified of all allegations of boundary-crossing behavior, independent schools must create a culture of reporting, so that every member of the school community is able to recognize boundary-crossing behavior and knows whom they should make a report to. Both employees and parents should understand that they are expected to report concerns about inappropriate conduct sooner rather than later.
The Venable Independent School Law team is available to assist schools in navigating the above issues. If you have any questions, please contact Caryn G. Pass, Grace H. Lee, Janice P. Gregerson, or Ashley E. Sykes.