How BARCC Partners with Schools to Create Cultures that Are Safe and Equitable for All
Sexual abuse at private boarding schools has been all over the headlines this year. The truth is, though, that sexual violence in many forms is a regular occurrence at schools and campuses of all kinds—public and private, from middle school through college.
That’s why BARCC works with administrators, educators, and students throughout the Boston area and beyond on how to cultivate school cultures that are safe, healthy, and equitable learning environments for all students, staff, and administrators.
The challenges to creating these school cultures are great, but in our work at all grade levels, we’ve noticed three obstacles that are almost always present in schools. First, student survivors of sexual violence often do not know where they can find confidential help. It may not be obvious or even clear who they can approach to talk through what happened and if there are any avenues where the disclosure will be kept confidential and not reported to the administration or police. In some cases, there may not be anyone at the school who can or will engage with a survivor in confidence. The lack of clear information, and in some instances, the lack of any option for confidential conversation, may result in survivors not reaching out for support from anyone. This problem is often present at middle and high schools, and we occasionally see it on college campuses as well.
The second obstacle is often the reason why the first obstacle exists: lack of a consistent and well thought out plan for handling disclosures of sexual assault by students. It is not uncommon for administrators, faculty, and staff to not know what their reporting obligations are under current school policy, much less what their legal obligations are as mandated reporters. This lack of clarity often stems from school policies that are derivative of an individual administrator’s beliefs about how sexual assault should be handled (such as the principal or whichever staff member is responsible for dealing with disclosures of sexual assault), rather than a policy that is rooted in best practices. To be successful, a school policy on sexual harassment and assault should be implemented uniformly across campuses; students, staff, and administrators should receive annual training on the policy; and the policy should include explicit instruction for how student disclosures of sexual assault should be handled.
The third challenge we frequently see is a dramatic underestimation of the resources needed to respond appropriately and sensitively to survivors as well as implement the education and prevention work required to cultivate cultures that decrease sexual violence in the first place. Many schools lack the funding to simply develop and implement a sexual assault disclosure policy based on best practices. Prioritizing funds for real prevention work, which must encompass issues related to student mental health, substance use, prior trauma, and student achievement, can be difficult when staffing, curricula, and facility maintenance needs devour most budgets. The fact that the problem exists in the climate and culture speaks to the need for comprehensive work. Even in instances when a school has the funds necessary, school leaders often don’t know where to begin. As Steph Trilling, our director of Community Awareness and Prevention Services, puts it:
“They’re often in a position of: ‘I know I have to do this, but how do I do it?’”
How BARCC helps
The work we do with schools usually encompasses some of the following:
- Addressing any prior issues or a crisis that may be a precipitating event
- Goal setting and planning for improvements in policy, process, and prevention
- Reviews of policies and protocols with recommendations from legal, clinical, and prevention standpoints
- Ongoing workshops and trainings for students, faculty, administrators, and sometimes parents, on healthy relationships and consent, bystander strategies, supporting survivors, the dynamics of sexual violence, and best practices across the board
- Consultations with on-campus clinicians and medical professionals in how they are addressing and documenting disclosures
- BARCC office hours on campus during a time of community need
Anyone in the school community is invited to reach out to us when we begin our work. We have a 24-hour hotline, as well as comprehensive free services in our offices in Cambridge or Boston.
“Our work with schools gives staff who care deeply about eliminating sexual assault and violence opportunities to positively impact their communities,” says Stephanie DeCandia, BARCC’s director of programs. “People feel less isolated in this work when they’re able to partner with us and count on our expertise. And many of the schools we work with see real changes on campus and in school culture.”
Keys to success
In order to succeed, school leaders must be committed to change, which is also required anywhere else where people are trying to cultivate cultures in which sexual violence is rare. “We need school leaders to buy in to the need for change, create policies of best practices, and then consistently implement and enforce these policies,” says Steph Trilling. “The schools doing it right aren’t thinking just about legal compliance; they are thinking about creating a culture that is safe and supportive. But cultures don’t change overnight, and the work involved must be both comprehensive and thoughtful.”
What it looks like when schools do it right
School policies and procedures will meet the following requirements:
- Widely known and easy to access
- Use plain language and clearly define what constitutes sexual violence
- Clearly define processes and legal requirements related to disclosures of sexual assault and translate them into actionable steps
- Define what it means to be a community free from sexual violence and why that is important for the school
- Articulate a clear refusal to tolerate sexual violence in any form
- Clearly outline resources, whether they are confidential, and what happens when you disclose to various people
- Clarify privacy practices and access to information for all involved (survivor, offenders, etc.)
- Outline what will happen if a student, teacher, or staff member is found responsible for sexual violence
- Include messages and practices aimed at preventing sexual violence based on research, not on myths
- Plan for ongoing training on campus for students, faculty, and staff and include sexual violence prevention as part of all school community health and safety efforts
Is it getting better?
While it might seem from the media that sexual violence is getting worse on campuses, the fact is that we’re just hearing more about it now. This actually represents an improvement over the past, when survivors were even less likely to come forward and schools were less likely to acknowledge, document, and address it.
“More people are talking about it, and it’s been amazing to see how active students have become on campus in pushing their administrations,” Stephanie DeCandia says. “And there are people who truly care about this, who have cared for a long time, who are doing really good work, and who are a safe resource for students at these schools.”
When asked her favorite part of doing this work with schools, Steph Trilling shared this story:
“I was talking about BARCC services at the end of a prevention training with high school seniors, because even though it’s prevention, we know there will be survivors in the room. One of the students stood up, and he was clearly revved up. ‘I can’t believe I’m just finding out about this resource now. Where was this information in eighth grade? Can I make flyers for you and put them up around the school?’ So, my favorite part of working with schools is knowing that we can have such an impact, because each person has their own sphere of influence that they can now bring that knowledge to. It’s really empowering.”
And to answer that young man, we’ll be showing up in more and more middle and high schools, not to mention college campuses, soon! We recently created a new position, school and campus outreach coordinator, to focus specifically on bringing the prevention side of this work, and its vital impact, to additional schools throughout Greater Boston.