News reports about sexual misconduct in schools are no longer uncommon. Whether the allegations are about current student – student sexual assault or past teacher – student sexual abuse, no type of school is immune, including independent schools. A claim of sexual misconduct invariably triggers a crisis for the school. The stakes for a school responding to this type of crisis are high. Missteps can result in significant harm to a school’s most valuable asset, its reputation. Damage to a school’s reputation can adversely impact relationships with students, parents, alumni, donors and prospective applicants.
There are, in my opinion, two key organizational elements that are crucial for helping schools weather the storm in such a crisis. First, the board and the administration must have a collaborative working relationship. Second, the school must have established principles to guide board and the administration during the crisis. I will address each of these key elements.
To promote a collaborative working relationship with the head of school, the principle that the board’s role is oversight, not administration, needs to be well established in practice, before there is a crisis. During a crisis, it is inevitable that a board will become more involved with events. As parents, alumni, CEO’s or for other reasons, some board members, may find it quite challenging to exercise self-restraint during a crisis. Nonetheless, even with greater involvement, the role of the board is not to manage the crisis, but rather to oversee the management of the crisis.
Preparation for effective crisis response begins with thoughtful selection of board members. Just as some board members are selected for their skills at financial oversight or fundraising, some should be selected for their skills at dealing with critical situations. The board should establish a standing or special committee in advance of a crisis to work with the head of school in the event of a crisis. That committee, along with the board chair, will act as the interface between the board and the administration during a crisis.
Training in crisis response in advance of a crisis is crucial not just for administrators, but for boards as well. Training should include the importance of the board’s fiduciary duties. Trustees, particularly those who are alumni or parents, can find it difficult to maintain confidentiality about highly sensitive information even though they have a duty to do so. Scenario based training can be particularly helpful for board members who have never experienced the report of a critical incident to a school. Such training will facilitate constructive collaboration between the board and the administration, and will help board members stay in their appropriate roles when an actual crisis occurs.
Even when there is a collaborative working relationship between the board and the head of school, it is crucial that the board and administration have clear and established principles to guide their decision-making and actions. In the event of a crisis, traditional and social media will be very active. Every action by the school may be scrutinized. Pleasing everyone will be impossible, particularly when partial information or misinformation is circulating. Under these difficult circumstances, schools will benefit by striving to achieve the moral high ground in all they do when responding to a crisis. The three pillars of the moral high ground, in my opinion, are transparency, equity and accountability. Reasonable people can, and will, disagree about the appropriate extent of each in any given situation, but a school will be less susceptible to criticism and long-term damage if its decision-making is guided by these principles.
Just as training is important to prepare a school for handling critical relationships in the event of a crisis, training is beneficial to prepare a board and an administration to engage in constructive decision-making in the midst of a crisis. Again, scenario based training can be especially helpful in this regard for both board members and key administrators.
A school without these two key organizational elements, a collaborative relationship between the board and the head and established guiding principles, will face even greater, perhaps insurmountable, difficulties in the event of a crisis. A crisis is not the time for a board and a head to sort out their working relationship. A crisis is not the time for a school to determine which values will guide its strategies and decisions. Effective crisis response requires effective teamwork and a clear moral compass. Neither is possible without forethought and planning.