The Long-Term Vision for Healing Abuse on Campus

In 2016, The Boston Globe published its Spotlight investigative report, “Private Schools, Painful Secrets” about child abuse—and its coverup—in independent schools. The numbers were shocking: more than 300 incidents at over 100 schools in New England alone—with speculation that the data surely underestimates the problem.
Was it more shocking that abuse happened or that schools worked so hard to conceal the truth? In the five years since these revelations, critical questions still remain: What can schools do? How can they better protect children? How can they build trust with the public?
I am a former boarding school student, author, activist, and leader of two nonprofits for youth empowerment. I also have more than a decade of experience as an educator in private elementary and middle schools, working directly with students, parents, and school administrators to bring sexual health curriculum into the classroom. I have seen firsthand where school leaders have the strongest urge to clench up and become secretive: sexual misconduct on campus.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a profound opportunity to pause, reflect, and restructure many of our existing processes and systems. Now is the time, before the new school year begins, for school leaders to take a close look at how the lack of transparency has perpetuated the problem of sexual misconduct––and how the presence of transparency can heal. If we shift our thinking to conclude that individual abusers are not the problem––that a lack of transparency is––then we can move forward constructively.

In the wake of the Globe investigation, NAIS, in collaboration with The Association of Boarding Schools, gathered a group of school heads, administrators, association leaders, childhood sexual abuse survivors, investigators, researchers, and advocates in sexual abuse prevention to create a Task Force to address the issue. In 2018, the group released Prevention and Response, a comprehensive report about educator sexual misconduct. While the recommendations and strategies have helped school leaders feel more equipped to handle incidents, transparency is still missing from the process.
This report supports leaders in knowing what to do, but the system still needs oversight to determine whether school officials are following through and doing it. How do we know if they fall short, meet, or exceed the recommended guidelines? Who is overseeing this?

Here are the top challenges to transparency I have witnessed in my experience. I encourage schools to reflect on this list through a lens of equity and compassion, as a starting place for honest self-assessment.

Challenges to Embracing Transparency

Here are the top challenges to transparency I have witnessed in my experience. I encourage schools to reflect on this list through a lens of equity and compassion, as a starting place for honest self-assessment. 
Fear of being the only one. Imagine sitting in a circle of colleagues from different schools and a group facilitator says, “OK, who can share an experience when things went horribly wrong, and you feared it may be the end of your institution or your career?” Participants might have a moment of panic or doubt. What if you reveal something that is unique to your organization and find that it exposes yours as the only place with these problems?
Prestige has its pitfalls; the illusion of perfection can get in the way of acknowledging problems. But humans crave authenticity above perfection, and authenticity is a building block for trust. Admitting a problem and demonstrating a high-quality response confirms the school’s values in action. Taking ownership of a problem on campus is an investment in trust between a school and the public.
Discomfort around sexuality. You may work in a culture where openness about sexuality is seen as taboo. If something of a sexual nature occurs in relation to a young student, some may reflexively retreat into thinking “Oh, that’s personal to the child,” or worse, “That’s the problem of the person harmed.” But child safety is a very public concern. Privacy matters, but schools must rigorously examine whether a reference to privacy is really a cover for personal discomfort or a subtle way to blame the victim.
Lawsuits. Someone says “lawsuit” and even the most clear-headed individuals can start to panic and make unethical choices. This fear can distort a decision-making moment in a way that stalls the growth of the community and creates further problems. Students are often the ones who suffer when adults have this fear response. School leaders cannot let fear of lawsuits trigger them into action that causes further trauma.
Consider that transparency-as-prevention soothes not only young people who need personal safety;
it paradoxically makes lawsuits far less likely. Once the choice is made to keep everything above board, the possibility of further legal overreach to hide incidents disappears. When schools react in the interest of protecting a reputation, they can go down the slippery slope of trying to control outcomes and accumulate further legal violations in the process. Transparency is the more difficult yet safer approach in the long-term.
Inherent gender biases. School leaders have to closely examine their biases about who is being protected in the long term as expressed in the institutional response. We saw an example of this in the case of Brock Turner, the Stanford University student who was convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault in 2015. During his sentencing, the judge reduced his punishment from six years in state prison to six months in county jail because, he said Turner was a “promising young man.”
These kinds of biases about the value of a boy’s career vs. a girl’s also play out in K-12 education. We must ensure that we are valuing the experience and future success of all people––especially those who lead less privileged lives. We achieve equity when we examine these internal biases objectively and record how they affect outcomes in the reality of a school environment. Radical transparency is required to accomplish this, to look plainly at any discrepancy of accountability in how a policy is carried out by gender, race, or socioeconomic criteria. To be effective, schools need people outside the institution to track the consistency of response.
Acceptance of the status quo and resistance to disrupting it. Sometimes a school’s response is driven by a staff member’s career or the school’s reputation or endowment instead of the well-being of those who have been harmed. Any default pattern of response—or failure of response—that has primarily served those who oversee the process must be broken.
No school should be able to decide whether to handle abuse incidents internally; there is an inherent conflict of interest and a structural inequity. External oversight must accompany transparency in the response to sexual misconduct and abuse on campus. If we turn away from focusing on this practice, we miss the opportunity for the deepest healing.     

Coming Full Circle

Hundreds of schools have struggled with these challenges—failures of response and transparency. Only a few schools will be needed to set a new example and turn the tide toward embracing transparency as the long-term solution. The Justice CORPS––the Committee to Oversee the Rights & Protections of Students––offers schools a transparency and oversight model to resolve the inherent conflict of interest and mend the cover-up loophole. A pilot of the program will run at two schools as soon as funding is secured.     
The Justice CORPS relieves the burden of response from within the school environment by delegating tasks to a group of strictly non-affiliated volunteers outside the school. As part of the Justice CORPS model, students meet Justice CORPS members at all-school assemblies and learn their rights and the process of reporting. Then, schools are graded on whether they meet, fall short, or exceed the guidelines laid out by the Independent School Task Force in its Prevention and Response Report. This model completes the cycle of resolution of abuse, from incident to reporting, to records-keeping, to response, and finally the willingness to look honestly at the quality of that response.
As we pause and look at where we’ve been, we owe it to students and families to consider where we are truly going. The Boston Globe revealed the enormity of the issue five years ago, and The Justice CORPS points us toward a new long-term healing, one we can easily achieve within five years from today. The first step is a school’s willingness to allow transparency. The payoffs, in trust, health, and a whole new culture on campus, hold the greatest returns for both schools and families.
Vanessa Osage

Vanessa Osage is president of The Amends Project, creator of The Justice CORPS Initiative, and author of Can’t Stop the Sunrise: Adventures in Healing, Confronting Corruption & the Journey to Institutional Reform.