In October 2019, the State of Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) issued a letter offering significant preliminary recommendations for the prevention of child sexual abuse in public schools. The OCA was originally asked to conduct an independent outside review of a local board of education’s child sexual abuse prevention policies and procedures in June 2019, following the arrest of several public school employees for both sexual assault and the failure to report suspected abuse or neglect. Among the concerns following the arrests was the fact that two of the school employees had been hired despite prior felony convictions. While written specifically for an individual board of education, the OCA’s letter offers valuable insights for local and regional boards of education across the state regarding the prevention of child sexual abuse and the creation of positive school climates.

The OCA is tasked with monitoring and evaluating public and private agencies that are charged with the protection of children, and is granted broad investigatory powers to carry out its responsibilities. Between June and October 2019, the OCA reviewed numerous board of education policies pertaining to child sexual abuse prevention, including but not limited to those related to Title IX compliance, mandated reporting, and hiring and employment. While the OCA’s review is still ongoing at this time, several preliminary recommendations were offered to aid the board of education in preventing and responding more appropriately to reported instances of child sexual abuse.

The OCA began by recommending the revision of the board of education’s sexual abuse prevention policies, geared toward creating a multi-tiered approach to prevention and student safety. Specific policy provisions regarding student and staff interactions were recommended, including limitations on closed-door, after-hours activities between individual students and staff, and the inclusion of chaperones during off-site trips. The OCA further recommended restrictions for electronic communications between individual students and staff, and the adoption of a system of progressive discipline for staff members who violate child sexual abuse policies. Notably, the OCA also recommended the adoption of policy provisions for specific “highly vulnerable” student cohorts, including students with disabilities and those with limited English language proficiency. Finally, ongoing data collection was encouraged to analyze the efficacy of these new policy provisions.

With respect to school employee training, the OCA emphasized that a review of federal and state mandated reporting laws is necessary but not sufficient. Among others subjects recommended for further training, the OCA highlighted the recognition of “grooming behaviors” as a significant skill for the prevention of child sexual abuse. In addition to school employees, training for students, families, and board of education members was also recommended to keep all relevant parties apprised of their Title IX rights and obligations. Memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with local law enforcement and child welfare agencies were also encouraged to further clarify and coordinate Title IX investigations and related activities.

Finally, the OCA provided recommendations for boards of education to ensure adequate practices regarding the hiring, training and supervision of certified and temporary school employees. The OCA reiterated the importance of complying with federal and state laws regarding background checks, and encouraged regular audits of hiring decisions. Practices restricting individual or “alone time” between students and staff were again encouraged, with further emphasis on the vulnerability of particular cohorts of students.

It is worth noting that, even before the issuance of the OCA letter, the board of education had taken several proactive steps toward preventing and responding to reported incidents of child sexual abuse. These initiatives included not only a comprehensive internal review of the board’s child sexual abuse prevention policies and procedures and an audit of current hiring practices, but also the addition of a complaint reporting feature on the school district website, and a mobile phone application allowing students to anonymously report concerns regarding abuse and neglect.

Local and regional boards of education are strongly encouraged to be proactive by reviewing their own child sexual abuse prevention policies and procedures, and considering the adoption of the OCA’s preliminary recommendations. Regardless of whether a school district has encountered few or numerous instances of child sexual abuse, it is imperative that robust policies and procedures be adopted for the prevention of such abuse, both to minimize the district’s legal liability and, more importantly, ensure a safe and nurturing school environment for all students.

Attorneys at Berchem Moses PC are available to consult boards of education regarding regular and special education matters in the State of Connecticut, including sexual abuse prevention policies and procedures.  For further information, please contact Attorney Michelle Laubin at mlaubin@berchemmoses.com.