As the expert witness in nearly 100 court cases examining the abuse of students by school personnel, boundary violations are almost always the precursor to sexual misconduct. Boundaries are clear lines that help district’s define what is and is not acceptable behavior. For example, one boundary that is especially important is one-on-one access to students because the most frequent sexual misconduct cases occurring in preK-12 schools involve school employees who had one-on-one access to students (i.e. coaches, band or music teachers, paraprofessionals, special education teachers, tutors, etc.).
A lack of clear boundaries and the failure to understand and respect boundaries creates undue exposure and harm for everyone - the student, school staff, and the school district. In rare cases, it can also open the door for the false accusations of school employees. Your district should work hard to clarify boundaries for staff and students and to address any “grey areas” that may exist in your current policies.
Key Questions to Reduce the ‘Grey Areas’
Here are 7 key questions for your school district to consider when creating or reviewing your policies that address boundary crossing behaviors:
Can your staff be friends with students on social media?
Can your staff hire students to water their flowers/feed their animals/babysit their kids/perform household chores?
Can your staff give students a ride home or transport an individual student? What if a parent doesn’t show up? What is the protocol that should be followed?
Can your staff tutor a student one-on-one? If so, do you have requirements for hours or using a common space?
Can your staff have coverings over their windows?
Can your staff text a student individually? Send only group text messages? Copy parents on text messages?
Can your staff use personal email to communicate with students? If so, in what circumstances?
Taking time to discuss these questions and determine what is and is not acceptable in your district is an important step to preventing boundary crossing behaviors that can lead to more egregious activities.
Once you’ve answered these questions, consider ways to formalize the answers and make them easy to follow. For example:
Develop a technology use policy. Outline what platforms are acceptable to use and for what purpose. If your district does not already use a district sponsored platform for classroom use, consider purchasing one that can help you monitor technology use by your staff and students.
Develop a staff-to-student communication policy. Outline how staff and students can communicate, though what systems, and at what times. You district should consider phone, text, email, and platform communication. Develop checklists for common areas of concern.
Example 1: A single student needs extra time learning a concept after school. Outlining when and what times it is OK for the tutoring to take place in the classroom with the door open and when and where the tutoring should take place in a common area. Outline if notice should be given to someone on campus if the student is staying after school and how that notice should be communicated.
Example 2: A coach returns from an athletic competition late at night and the parents are not there to pick up their student. Repeated attempts to reach the parents are unsuccessful. Outline the protocol the coach should follow including how long they should wait, where they should wait, who they should inform, who they should call, and in what order.
Boundary violations are a real problem that can lead to sexual misconduct. Only real conversations and effective training that goes above the ‘check in the box’ approach will help schools tackle the issue of sexual harassment. Over the last 25 years, McGrath Training Solutions has helped more than 250,000 school district administrators and employees throughout the United States and Canada create safer and more effective K-12 environments. Click here to learn more.