Standing in New York’s JFK airport, John Bradbury received a call. A partner and Director of Issues and Crises at Ketchum, a leading public relations firm, phone calls from colleges dealing with crises were not uncommon. This call, from the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Emma Willard School, a prestigious all-girls, grades 9-12 predominantly boarding school in upstate New York, was different.
In July 2016, twenty years after the events took place, a former Emma Willard student came forward to publicly share her story of being raped by a teacher at the school, and how the administration at the time failed to appropriately respond to her disclosure. As the story unfolded, the current administration worked to understand these past events, and the Emma Willard community, including faculty, staff, students, parents and families, and the active alumnae community wrestled with feelings of shock, anger, and distrust.
While the common response from institutions in the midst of a PR crisis is to circle the wagons, the Chair told Mr. Bradbury that Emma Willard wanted to take a different approach: they wanted to learn from the the mistakes of the past. Not just that, but they wanted to share their experience and lessons learned with other private schools who were in similar situations, of which there were many. The Emma Willard School didn’t just want to change how private schools addressed sexual violence, they wanted to become leaders in doing so.
Private schools are not immune from the critical need to address sexual violence, including harassment and assault, as the headlines over the past years have made clear. Unlike public schools, private institutions that do not accept federal money are not legally beholden to Title IX, the law stating that no person should be subjected to discrimination in their education on the basis of sex. Yet there are myriad reasons remain as to why these schools can, and should, act in a manner consistent with the law:
- Educational duty: As educators responsible for shaping the minds of their students, private schools should ensure that all students are free to fully access and engage in their educational pursuits without experiencing sexual violence of any kind.
- Mission-driven responsibility: Many privates schools are driven by a mission that can only truly be fulfilled if a student can learn in an environment free from sexual violence and the devastating consequences – mental, physical, emotional, and academic – that often follow it. The Emma Willard mission is to “proudly [foster] in each young woman a love of learning, the habits of an intellectual life, and the character, moral strength, and qualities of leadership to serve and shape her world.” The administration and Board felt it was impossible to foster these qualities without reconciling with their past and wholly embracing the task of creating a culture of respect on campus. “I saw this as an opportunity for the school to be a leader in this area, and to do better than what was done in the 1990s and in other times,” said Lisa LeFort, who served as Chair of the Board of Trustees at the time the allegations came to light. “Safety on campus depends on establishing a culture of transparency and respect.”
- Unique opportunities: While the law may not require it, the flexibility and set-up of private schools present unique opportunities to lead the effort to address sexual violence:
- Curriculum: Since they are not bound by a state-mandated curriculum, private schools have the freedom to design their curriculum as they choose. This might include developmentally-appropriate content on sexual and reproductive health, including discussions of consent, healthy relationships, and bystander intervention, as well as identifying opportunities to integrate these issues into classroom discussions of literature or history. Additionally, the head of school (or similar) does not need approval from a superintendent or district School Board to adopt changes to the curriculum.
- Access to resources: While resources in any institution are finite, many private schools experience more flexibility than their public counterparts. Particularly in well-established private schools with a robust alumni community, there are opportunities to raise funds to support efforts to address sexual violence.
- Creating community: Private schools have an opportunity to shape their desired community. They may decide that addressing sexual violence head-on and fostering a culture of respect on their campus is essential, and through their decisions, actions, and messaging, they can build a community that embraces that charge. Boarding schools, who very much mirror a four-year residential college in their living/learning environment, have even more opportunity to shape community norms.
For these reasons and more, private K-12 schools can equip their students with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate potential experiences with sexual violence in higher education, the workplace, and generally in life. When confronted with historical allegations, the Emma Willard School chose to lean in and become leaders in this effort.
To kick off their work, the Emma Willard School engaged Culture of Respect, a NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education signature initiative to address sexual violence in higher education. Until this point, Culture of Respect had worked exclusively with colleges and universities, but was eager to adapt their model and tools to fit Emma Willard.
Overview of the Process
Culture of Respect came to Emma with its signature tools to help guide the school’s work: the CORE Blueprint is a six-point strategic roadmap that engages all campus stakeholders in addressing sexual violence. It is organized around six pillars, each of which plays an essential role in building a comprehensive institutional response to sexual violence.
The CORE Blueprint framework has traditionally been used in conjunction with the CORE Evaluation, a robust self-assessment survey meant to be administered by a multidisciplinary team of diverse stakeholders from across the school. The CORE Evaluation helps a school inventory its programs, policies, and procedures and identify areas for growth. Culture of Respect created a custom version of the CORE Evaluation, with questions tailored to reflect a secondary school audience.
Emma Willard organized its multistakeholder group, known as its Campus Leadership Team (CLT), in the summer and fall of 2016; it included students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumnae. Together, they administered the CORE Evaluation in early 2017. Guided by their CORE Evaluation results and an accompanying report created by Culture of Respect staff, the CLT translated gaps in their efforts into a detailed action plan, which they continue to work to implement on campus.
Examples of achievements that resulted from their action plan include:
- Added 2.5 full-time employees in residential faculty, counseling, and nursing
- Nursing staff completed training on trauma-informed nurse forensic exams with the local Sexual Assault and Crime Victims Assistance Program
- Improved working relationship with local hospital and law enforcement
- Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs) are being put in place with community service providers
- Brought together students to review and revise all aspects of the student handbook, particularly those related to student safety and well-being, in order to clarify the language and intention of the policies and protocols
- Reviewed and updated school policies related to sexual misconduct, as well as the employee handbook and standards of behavior
- Increased class time dedicated to discussions about consent and health education (Since beginning their work with Culture of Respect, Emma Willard School has doubled the number of classes related to healthy relationships, consent, and sexual health.)
- Expanded training for student leaders to include training on bystander intervention, and sexual violence awareness and response
- Provided professional development training for faculty and staff on boundaries for maintaining healthy relationships with students, as well as understanding complexities of gender
- Held regular town hall meetings about issues related to sexual violence, including the #MeToo movement
- Created an internal online calendar of activities related to sexual violence prevention and response that is available to students, employees, parents, alumnae, and a forward-facing webpage for the general public
- Students, faculty, and staff participated in the April 2018 Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), including distributing resources from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, screening the documentary Audrey & Daisy, and participating in the 11th Annual Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event in Troy, NY
- Established the READY Center, a drop-in space for students committed to promoting their wellbeing through holistic and proactive educational programming
- In addition to administering the CORE Evaluation, Emma Willard School plans to administer a climate survey to learn more about students’ perceptions of their campus’s climate for sexual violence, as well as their perceptions of how their institution responds if violence occurs.
Most notably, employees have noticed that since this work began, students have been more willing to speak openly to teachers and administrators, and seek services and support when they need it. Shelley Maher, Dean of Students at Emma Willard, notes that as a result of the work they’ve done, “the girls and adults have a better understanding now that sexual violence needs to be believed, addressed, and never, ever undervalued, devalued or minimized.”
While Emma Willard has made great strides at implementing the objectives on their action plan, they are showing no signs of slowing down. Their staff agree that there is no “done” in this work, no finish line. Rather, this is an ongoing, iterative process of self-reflection and improvement. The PR professionals at Ketchum continue to receive phone calls from institutions in crisis, from those who are confronting mistakes of their distant past as well as those that occurred in recent months and years. When these calls come in, they try to encourage the school’s administration to think of their situation not as an opportunity to deflect and defend, but to lean in and lead.
This blog was originally published by Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS).