Student Well-Being

Principals Face a Delicate Balancing Act In Handling Allegations of Misconduct

By Caroline Hendrie — December 16, 1998 6 min read
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School principals often feel they need to be education’s answer to the Colonial minuteman—ready at a moment’s notice to handle just about anything.

But when it comes to probing sexual impropriety involving school employees and students, many experts say principals are better off calling in the cavalry—professional investigators trained to cope with the singular challenges such cases present. By trying to go it alone, many scholars and law-enforcement officials say, administrators risk violating their state’s child-abuse reporting laws, jeopardizing the chances that justice will be done, or simply getting in way over their heads.

“It’s not fair to ask our principals to be Ken Starr,” said W. Richard Fossey, the associate dean of education at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “They’re not by training or temperament like dogged prosecutors.”

A Trust Betrayed

In theory, most principals endorse the seemingly straightforward notion that they should quickly notify outside authorities whenever they suspect sexual abuse of students.

Yet in practice, figuring out when to pick up the telephone can prove anything but easy.

It is common for administrators to learn about possible improprieties indirectly, through rumors, hunches, or allegations of apparently questionable validity. Deciding what to do with this information, and when—if ever—to turn it over to external authorities, can be fraught with anguish and uncertainty.

“The truth basically comes to the surface in parts,” said Michael L. Caplinger, who has handled several sexual-misconduct cases and is now the superintendent of the Iowa Park district in northeast Texas. “Sometimes you don’t know if you’ve ever gotten the truth.”

Reporting Not Enough

Yet just as administrators must know when to bring in outside help, they must realize that doing so doesn’t necessarily get them off the hook.

Many instances of sexual impropriety by staff members do not rise to the level of prosecutable crimes. For that reason, school supervisors must be prepared to make disciplinary cases against employees on the grounds that their conduct violates professional standards.

“Just because a person is not a convicted felon doesn’t mean he should be with children,” noted Shayla Lever, the director of child-abuse prevention for the Los Angeles schools. “What we really have to guard against is the administrator who doesn’t want to deal with it, refers it to law enforcement, and then thinks, ‘OK, well, that’s taken care of.’ ”

To help prevent that scenario, some experts say principals need at least some training in investigating sexual wrongdoing by employees. Still, many advise them to reach out for expertise rather than attempt a full-blown investigation themselves.

Some larger districts have employees who specialize in examining employee misconduct. But for smaller ones, officials can consider hiring outside investigators if the probes by police of child-protection officials are insufficient. Besides greater know-how, independent investigators offer the advantage of relative impartiality, some experts argue.

“Bringing in an outsider reassures people that you’re not trying to cover anything up,” said Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational administration at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Some observers believe that such assurances are strongly needed. With all that principals have riding on the outcome of such probes—everything from a professional colleague’s career to their own legal liability—some experts say it is unrealistic to expect them to examine a case thoroughly and objectively.

“It’s hard to get out of your mind what will happen if it’s substantiated,” said Edward F. Stancik, who has handled hundreds of such cases as the special investigator for the New York City schools. “A principal’s got too much of a conflict going on to be the one to do the investigation.”

More Harm Than Good

Very often, the investigations conducted by police or social-service agencies—even if they do not yield criminal charges or convictions—can provide valuable fodder for school officials trying to build a disciplinary case. And in some cases, the reverse can be true, as evidence gathered by school officials proves useful to the authorities.

But more often than not, many law-enforcement officials say, educators do more harm than good when they delve into allegations without giving police or child-abuse investigators first crack.

“Invariably, an in-house investigation creates more problems,” Mr. Stancik said. “It’s worse than doing nothing.”

In part because they usually are not trained investigators, school officials may unintentionally cripple the ability of detectives to gather evidence.

A principal’s first instinct may be to confront the employee, for instance. But putting staff members on notice can undermine a range of investigative techniques, including attempts to capture suspects talking about past wrongdoing on audiotape. It may also give the employee a chance to intimidate victims into silence or otherwise impede justice.

Even if they play little role in assessing whether alleged improprieties rise to the level of a crime, school officials are often a key link between victims and the child-protection and criminal-justice systems.

To improve the odds that they will perform that function well, those committed to curtailing schoolhouse sex abuse urge schools to develop clear protocols to follow when allegations arise.

“This thing strikes like a bolt of lightening,” Mr. Stancik observed. “The time to think about it is before you’ve got a kid in your office bawling her eyes out.”

On-Site Expert Urged

Some experts also advise schools to designate at least one person at each school who is trained in the dynamics of sexual malfeasance by employees. This may help avoid errors that can allow abusers to continue victimizing students and land administrators in hot water for failure to report.

“On a day-by-day basis, somebody has to do the initial screening to say, ‘Is this worthy of a criminal investigation?’ ” said Robert J. Shoop, a professor of educational administration at Kansas State University.

To prepare for the day that such an investigation is warranted, school officials should make it a priority to develop a working relationship with their local child-protection agency and police, say prosecutors, scholars, and administrators who have lived through such cases.

Agreeing on a protocol for conducting investigations in advance can be crucial. If administrators try to lay the ground rules on the spot—to make the process easier on students or employees, for example—misunderstandings can ensue.

“Police are trained to get the bad guy and if they see the principal is getting in the way, they’ll start talking about obstructing justice,” Mr. Fossey said. “So you need to develop trust ahead of time.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 1998 edition of Education Week as Principals Face a Delicate Balancing ActIn Handling Allegations of Misconduct

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