How to Handle Sensitive Issues at Your School
Vol. 16 No. 7
Of all the responsibilities you shoulder as a key administrator, the one you might most readily relinquish is that of fielding a serious complaint from a parent, student, or employee.
Some situations can be relatively minor. Perhaps a student or parent has an issue with the class schedule, transportation, amount of homework, and the like. These can be discussed and resolved with each family.
However, other complaints are not minor—this includes sexual harassment, abuse, discrimination, and bullying. If a complaint of this nature arises, you need a formal protocol for investigating and mitigating these potentially significant issues. You do not want to ad lib these conversations!
Imagine the father of a student leaving a voicemail claiming, “One of your staff members acted inappropriately with my daughter—I want a meeting with you right now.” What will you do?
The first step in your formal protocol is working with the School Head to decide who the “point person” is for sensitive situations. It may be the School Head in a small school. It could be a Division Head if your school employs a Leadership Team.
This person should be empathetic, sociable, and have recognizable power so the parent knows his or her complaint is heard by someone who can address the issue at hand—and, if needed, spur change in the school. Selecting a point person provides clarity to the school community and allows the designated individual to prepare for this role.
Once the point person is selected, the role of the Business Office can be critical in helping him or her prepare accordingly. The Business Office can facilitate conversations with the school’s attorney, HR representative(s), broker(s), or medical professional(s) so that this individual understands general guidelines of how to handle certain situations.
Role playing is an important step in readying for these situations. As CFO, work with the point person to go through sample scenarios. Decide and practice how, based on advice from the aforementioned experts, he or she might respond in each case.
These cues may prove useful. When responding, the point person should be:
- calm, rather than reflecting back anger or excitement;
- serious, rather than dismissive;
- collaborative, rather than adversarial;
- in search of the truth, rather than secretive; and
- more interested in protecting the child (including knowing when the child may need to be separated from the accused), rather than an adult or the school.
Work with your point person to plan the meeting to the best of your abilities.
These types of claims are serious. The point person must respectfully acknowledge the claim, while not taking sides. Based on the nature of the complaint, decide if a witness, or even an attorney, is needed.
The meeting should be done in a confidential manner. Be careful, however, to not “promise” confidentiality. The issue may rise to a level where other parties will legally need to become involved. The point person must listen and ask any follow ups to ensure the full story is shared. Make sure the parent feels his or her concerns are respected and heard.
If you’re dealing with a suspected case of abuse, you may have to inform local authorities. Once the parents share their concerns, the point person must outline your investigation protocol to let them know the school takes their complaint seriously. Include the steps involved, the people who play a role, and when they can expect to hear back from the school.
Following this session, set your protocol in motion to investigate the issue. If you haven’t yet outlined an investigation protocol, this is a critical process to establish before an issue occurs. Work with a professional and confer with your school’s attorney to ensure your protocol is complete and compliant.
Additional ISM Resources:
The Source for Private School News Vol. 17 No. 5 Closing the Risk Gap for Sexual Misconduct
The Source for Business and Operations Vol. 11 No. 2 Risk Management: Avoiding Scams
The Source for Business and Operations Vol. 15 No. 5 Reducing Risk When Hiring Vendors and Contractors
Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 41 No. 5 The Risk Management Assessment Process
I&P Vol. 41 No. 4 Risk Management Assessment: Reduce Your School’s Exposure