6 Questions I’m Asking My Child’s School About Preventing Sexual Misconduct

Editor’s note, 2021: In the wake of the revelations of sexual abuse and grooming at Marine Leadership Academy, we are updating this post from 2019.

Late in August 2018, Maggie Hickey of the Schiff Hardin law firm released her eagerly-awaited preliminary report on preventing and responding to sexual misconduct in Chicago Public Schools. There’s a lot in there, including a page of preliminary recommendations. You can read the full report here.

Local media gave us some quick takes on the report. The Chicago Tribune’s story laid out what the district did wrong, while Chalkbeat Chicago zeroed in on a single question: Will principal autonomy need to be rethought to ensure consistent training for staff and consistent responses to problems with inappropriate behavior?

But no one has yet broken down what parents really need to know and look for in their schools this year to see if staff are making real change to protect kids.

The report’s recommendations gave me ideas for questions we parents can ask to make sure schools are following through.

For example as a charter-school parent, I want my school leaders to confirm they will not be using charter autonomy to delay or avoid taking the same steps district-run schools will have to take to address sexual abuse in schools. Update: Many of these questions remain relevant.

Here’s What I’m Asking My School

Who is our school’s Title IX contact?
Have they received training yet on how to gather information regarding allegations of sexual misconduct without re-traumatizing victims or interfering with a DCFS and/or police investigation? If not, when is that training going to take place?

How is our school planning to implement Erin’s Law this year?
What’s the plan for teaching staff, children and families about how to recognize sexual abuse, how to report it and how to support children who have been abused? Will we use the CPS Sexual Health curriculum, and who will be doing the teaching?

Have all background checks been completed?
News media say all charter schools have agreed to comply with the new regulations regarding background checks for employees. What is the timeline for completing them? Update: Though this should have happened two years ago, it would be prudent to keep asking charter schools about this because oversight tends to drift once the media spotlight shifts away from an issue.

What is the plan regarding the new CPS screening process for volunteers?
I get that there are concerns requiring a background check for parent volunteers who spend a lot of time at school can be a problem for undocumented families. How can we keep our parents safe and keep our kids safe, too? Update: Given COVID-19 as well as the more stringent volunteer background checks, what I’m hearing from principals is that it is not easy for volunteers to get into schools as of fall 2021. But it never hurts to ask.

How are you educating staff on maintaining appropriate boundaries with students?
Charter parents like me will want to ask our principals, “If  you aren’t using the CPS guidelines, what are you using?” Parents in district-run schools will want to ask their principals if they have made their staff aware of the CPS guidelines. The Hickey report notes, “CPS has not taught the guidelines effectively or sufficiently,” adding that the vast majority of principals and assistant principals interviewed for the report had never even seen them. It’s worth asking principals what they know about the guidelines and how they plan to train staff on them, and what help they are getting from central office to do it.

Last and most important, what trainings will be held for parents to help them know how to protect their children from sexual abuse and to support them if it happens?

It’s hard to even think about the possibility your own child could fall victim to a sexual predator. Our whole culture is freaking out about giving children the freedom to walk alone, partly from misguided, outsized fears of strangers kidnapping or sexually assaulting them.

It would be a whole lot smarter to educate parents on the realities of who is most likely to hurt their kids: someone they know and trust. It would also be a lot smarter to equip children with the ability to say no when adults violate their boundaries and set up norms and procedures that make it safe for them to tell other adults if there is a problem.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?
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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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