The ultimate communications dilemma for school Heads

Much has rightly been written about the challenge for schools in responding to allegations of historic sexual assault — especially in light of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which presented its final report in 2017.

While the tragedy of historic sexual assault has presented many challenges for the leaders of educational institutions, less has been said about the massive dilemma faced by school Heads when a current or even recently graduated student is the victim of sexual assault.

I need to state from the outset that I am not a lawyer. However, as a long-term news editor, I believe I can offer some insight into a specific aspect of these cases that I know from experience can become a nightmare for any school leadership group.

Also, I need to be clear that I am not a psychologist, nor do I have any training in pastoral care. Therefore, the nature of my observations relates solely to the communications dilemma that schools face when these awful situations arise, and not to the other arguably more critical elements of how a school might respond in caring for their students.

Although this is a difficult issue to discuss, for practical reasons, allow me to use a fictitious example, one that could be replicated in multiple different ways: that of the allegation of a) a sexual crime against a student occurring either within the school or outside the school grounds, where b) the allegation is the subject of an active police inquiry — in this case, one where the investigating officers might release information into the public domain as part of their attempt to apprehend the perpetrator.

I need to caution at this point that, because criminal law is largely governed by state legislation, there can be differences in how the law is applied in different parts of Australia. However, overriding legal principle is a constant and is based on the proposition that no information should ever be released into the public domain that results in the likelihood of a victim’s identity becoming public. Note the use of the term ‘likelihood’ — these laws go well beyond the offence of naming a victim, extending broadly to include information like the name of the school, ages of those impacted or references to localities that could lead even a single person to be able to potentially deduce the identity of the victim.

Historically, it has been relatively easy for these laws to be enforced. While the general perception is that journalists often disregard societal norms and publish whatever information they wish no matter the consequences, this area of the law is one they take very, very seriously. The penalties for a breach of these laws can be severe. Journalists and news editors recognise the need to exercise extreme care when it comes to reporting sexual crimes.

Up until the advent of social media in particular, this made it very easy for authorities to prevent the identities of sexual assault victims entering the public domain. This was through a combination of a compliant media who were aware of the consequences of breaching the law, and the fact that traditional media outlets were a finite group.

The arrival of social platforms like Facebook has, to a large extent, made the principle underlying these laws difficult to enforce. Arguably, the majority of the population these days receives their news via non-traditional sources, and the notion of a news ‘publisher’ has become murky at best. Hence we have seen the furore surrounding the unwillingness of the likes of Facebook and Twitter to accept that they have a moral and legal responsibility for the content that users might ‘publish’ on their platforms.

This is ultimately what produces the massive dilemma for school leaders in cases where a current student is the victim of sexual assault. It is a given that, by and large, one of the foundations of trust between school leaders and their communities is transparency. Parents in particular have very little tolerance for even the slightest inkling that a school is trying to ‘cover-up’ an incident — especially one that relates to the mental or physical welfare of students.

But here we have a situation where, even if a school Head recognises the need to be transparent about an incident that has occurred, the nature of the law may prevent them from even acknowledging the basic details. At the same time, a single post on Facebook by a concerned parent can spark a wildfire of conjecture and speculation, to the point where the school may be accused of deliberately withholding information essential to the wellbeing of its students. For example, is there a sexual predator on the loose that means parents should be driving their children to school rather than allowing them to walk?

It is worth considering too that these kinds of scenarios have the potential to create issues of trust with staff. As with parents, staff are likely to become aware of a situation that may have occurred and, of course, the same restrictions that apply to communications with parents also apply to them. This has the potential to undermine their trust in you and cause them to question why the school appears to be acting in a way that is contrary to its stated commitment to open and transparent communication.

On top of this, it is staff who are most likely to face immediate questions from parents and students. This can leave them in a difficult situation if they either don’t know what has occurred or are unable to explain the school Head’s apparent ‘silence’ on the matter.

If you are expecting an easy solution to this problem, I am afraid I cannot offer one. This is one situation in which the principle of transparency in parent and staff communications is made completely redundant by the law (and, it must be said, by the moral imperative to protect a vulnerable victim).

So, is there anything you can do to prevent a situation of this nature damaging the trust that is so critical between a school Head and their community?

Yes. But it requires a long-term strategy.

Perhaps ironically, the answer lies in the adoption of a deliberate and proactive commitment to transparency in every other situation where it is legally, practically and morally possible. The findings of the Royal Commission make it very clear that the number one reason people have become so distrustful of institutions is their tendency to suppress information that they deem to be embarrassing or reputationally harmful.

When it comes to communicating with your staff, my advice in this case is to be proactive in raising the issue with them in a very broad way that does not disclose any specific details but alerts them to the reasons for the lack of community-wide communication.

This is a situation where the extent of trust held by staff is crucial but, in my experience, it is also a situation where the ‘why’ matters more than the ‘what’. Ideally, I would suggest that you advise staff in some form of meeting but be careful to speak from notes to ensure you stay ‘on message’, so to speak — be conscious that internal emails can too easily become public with the click of the ‘forward’ button. You need to explain that an incident has occurred, but the nature of the matter makes it legally impossible for you to disclose some information. It is fine to acknowledge that they may in fact already be aware of the situation or are likely to become aware of it through speaking to parents or students. However, without disclosing the nature of what has occurred, your central message is simply that this is a unique situation where the law explicitly prevents communication.

Of course, not every staff member will be happy with this explanation. But, in the circumstances, it is the best you can do and goes some way to ensuring that, as much as possible, it maintains the level of trust you have worked hard to build.

Remember also that teaching staff can play a crucial role as your eyes and ears. If they are hearing persistent questions or are faced with direct enquiries from particular parents, they can alert you and you may then be able to speak to the individuals privately.

School Heads who show by their long-term behaviour that they have an ongoing commitment to transparency to the greatest extent possible, are far more likely to maintain the trust of their community on those specific occasions where they have no choice but to stay silent. The benefit of building a stock of goodwill upon which you can draw in difficult times cannot be overstated.

John Le Cras has nearly 40 years’ experience in journalism, public relations, marketing and corporate executive roles. John launched his own consulting firm in 2011 and works extensively in issue management and crisis communication in the private school sector.  

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