That Would Never Happen to Us: Structural and Organizational Gaps that Can Create Boundary Claims
Clinton Campion of Sedor Wendlandt Evans & Filippi
Clint Campion focused his presentation on three primary areas: sexual abuse civil lawsuits that have been filed in Alaska and nationally, the elements of a civil lawsuit against a school district, and recommendations on how to close structural and organizational gaps within your district.
Mr. Campion began by citing recent sexual abuse lawsuits involving teachers and students in Alaska school districts, as well as case studies involving in-state and national organizations that covered up child abuse. He said many school districts across the country face lawsuits for failing to respond and showing reckless indifference to sexual abuse claims.
Specific elements of a sexual abuse lawsuit against a school district include:
- The district had a duty.
- The district breached its duty
- Because the district breached its duty, it was negligent and caused harm to the plaintiffs.
Settlement costs are high, and may seem like a lot of money, but when a child is abused their outcomes in life are affected, which can impact the child’s ability to earn money. The district may be responsible for that. Pain and suffering settlements can cost a district $400k-$1m for each incident of sexual abuse, and settlements can also include substantial punitive damages for acting with “reckless indifference.” These large numbers can quickly bankrupt a school district.
Gaps that can lead to sexual abuse of students by staff include:
- Vulnerable victims, students who lack confidence
- Well-liked, charismatic abusers who appear to have good relationships with student victims.
- Personal relationships between administrators and abusers. For example, a principal who has a day-to-day working relationship with a teacher may find it difficult to believe a report of suspected abuse against them. This is why selecting an appropriate person to do the district investigation is critical. Report the incident and allow professionals to investigate.
- Failure to Properly Respond to children’s reports. Children will typically only report if they feel comfortable reporting it. Believe the child. The groomer has convinced them they won’t be believed. Don’t argue with the child. They will tell you more if they remain open. Don’t make promises or lie to the child.
- Report the suspected abuse. Should not investigate before reporting. Reasonable cause of sexual abuse is an obligation to report it and is not dependent on physical evidence.
- Support the child. Be available to the child and make the child feel safe.
- Follow up. Make sure OCS and law enforcement are taking the report seriously.
Abusers may groom a child to make them comfortable with the idea of sex, but any child under 16 cannot consent to sexual activity with an adult. If the accused is in a position of authority, the age can be higher.
Do not investigate a claim before reporting it. Delays can cause further harm to the child, and obscure objective analysis about what happened. A preliminary inquiry should not include talking to the suspected abuser. Even if you don’t have a confession from the suspect, it doesn’t mean the abuse didn’t occur. Sometimes it is in the suspect’s best interest to investigate them, because if they didn’t do anything, they are cleared.
A report of suspected abuse is confidential, but not indefinitely. The person reporting could be asked to testify in court. You cannot be prosecuted by making a report to OCS or law enforcement in a timely manner, so the suspect cannot ask who made the report, but they may find out later in court.
Mr. Campion concluded his presentation by outlining steps for how districts can close gaps:
- Require all district staff to participate in training and awareness of Sexual Abuse of Children and Mandatory Reporting Requirements.
- Adopt and enforce policies to prevent grooming behaviors:
- AASB Model Board Policy 5141.42 – Professional Boundaries of Staff with Students
- AASB Model Administrative Regulation 5141.42 – Boundary Invasions, Reoorting Violations, and Administrative Follow Up
- AASB Model Exhibit 5141.42.1 – School Employee Training Handout
- AASB Model Exhibit 5141.42.2 – Administrative Response Checklist
- Do not investigate the report before reporting.
- Do not inform the employee of the report
- Report the allegations to law enforcement and OCS
- Contact insurer
- Contact legal counsel
- Develop a crisis communication plan
- Notify parent or guardian
- Administrative leave
- Develop a communications plan.
Clinton Campion Slides
The information provided by presenters during the 2020 AASB Law & Policy Day, and included here, is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. If related legal advice is desired, please contact your attorney.