Being Proactive About Student Safety and Open Communication with Parents

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February 17, 2012 A recent alleged sexual child abuse situation at a Los Angeles Unified school has many school leaders thinking about how to ensure they have strong systems in place to protect students and how to have an open conversation with their parents and a healthy environment. Chris Ferris, leader of Our Community School, decided to communicate proactively with her parents about these issues. We're sharing the text of that letter as a resource for other school leaders.

From Chris Ferris of Our Community School:

When the news broke about the terrible child sexual abuse case in a local LAUSD school, I was horrified and saddened both as a mom and a principal. My first thought was, that could never happen at my school! My second thought was, how can I explain to parents why I know this to be true so I can reassure them? There are people who do bad things to children in this world, whether you call it sickness or evil, but all of us can protect the children in our care by having a culture of openness and accountability. Here is the letter I wrote to the parents at our school with specific information about how we create and sustain that culture at our school. I know many of them felt comforted by it and thanked me for addressing it even though the case wasn't connected with our school in any way. I hope some of you might find it useful in this or other challenging situations.

Dear OCS Families,

In the light of the terrible events at Miramonte Elementary School, I wanted to give you some insight into some of the things we do and have always done here at OCS so that such things could never happen here.

Training: we have trainings regularly about being a mandated reporter of suspected child abuse. This training includes signs of what to look for, what types of things you should ask a child and how to submit a report. It also emphasizes that it is better to call and let the experts in Department of Children and Family Services investigate than not call. It is not the job of any school employee to investigate or determine what has happened or not, it is our job to report anything we hear or see that seems reasonably suspect. This clear message about each school employee's responsibility to report prevents us from ever having a "culture of silence" develop around a suspected abuser.

Department of Justice Screenings: All school employees and frequent volunteers have their fingerprints taken and the school then gets a report from the department of justice about their criminal background, if there is any. We do this before hiring. Once a person is registered with the school we continue to get updates if the person has any arrests or court proceedings. This would include everything from traffic violations to more serious things such as a felony. Any reports are discussed with the employee and if there were to be any safety or trustworthiness concern the person would not continue to be an OCS employee.

Annual Evaluations: Unlike LAUSD we do not offer tenure to our staff, everyone has written annual evaluations, including myself. This prevents any employee from feeling they are no longer accountable or are protected even if they are not doing a good job (or worse). This year we will also be including parent and student surveys as part of our evaluation process for teachers, this is part of a new teacher evaluation system that was developed this past summer. These will be distributed at the Student Led Conferences.

Trust in Children: An important and strong aspect of our school culture is that we trust the children here. We listen to what they say, we try to find solutions for their concerns -- we take them seriously and respect them. A student here who feels in danger and brings that to a person on this staff will be listened to and the concern will not be brushed aside. I think this is one of the reasons children like this school so much, they know that people here care about them. Both Beth and I have, on many occasions helped students tell an adult at school what they didn't like or what is a problem for them. We have also discussed students concerns with school employees without students present if that seems more appropriate. Beth and I both believe strongly in bringing things up, even if it can be uncomfortable, rather than leave something concerning or puzzling unexamined.

Open Door Policy in Office: There is and continues to be an open door policy in our office to speak with Beth or myself about any concerns a parent may have. we are usually available to meet or speak on the phone within a few days and many times are available on the spot. Although at times we may not be able to give out personal or protected information about staff members, we do follow up with staff about concerns expressed by parents. Additionally we have a formal complaint policy in the parent handbook where a parent can file a written complaint to the administration or to the school Board.

I trust the staff here at OCS completely but I also know that it is responsible and correct to have the type of policies as I described above to ensure that the campus remains a safe place for our children.

Sincerely,

Chris Ferris
Principal