The principal must rule and play their role properly:
Rule #1: Think (before you act) about who you are, your role and responsibilities in the present situation.
As the school principal, you must also be its principled ethical and moral leader. Therefore, your first priority is to model the “tone” for how all involved should be treated, as well as ensuring the quality and believability of the investigative process. That tone will be initially established by your verbal and body language. You are a “mandated reporter” and a 24/7 school leader, and so any “off-campus” or “out-of-school” sexually related criminal incident involving your students is not beyond your responsibility.
Principals must arrive quickly to one “very clear” understanding, and that is determining if a possible statutory crime has been committed. If a crime has possibly been committed in or outside of the school the police must be contacted. (Note: With any staff-student sexual incident, “consent” is never a factor, regardless of the age of the student.) It is always smart to consult first with the school district’s legal department; too often, it is the unasked questions that get principals into trouble.
Initial steps are critical, the parents of both the alleged student victim and perpetrator have a reasonable expectation that you will be fair and thorough when conducting the investigation. But further, all of your parents, who trust you every day with the safety and care of their children, should feel a sense of confidence in your ability to fully grasp the serious nature of these types of incidents and that you have the ability and temperament to respond properly. There is a difference between a parent not liking an outcome versus them not liking an outcome because it was unfair or handled incompetently.
A principal exercises a great deal of discretionary power as to the “direction” of any school investigation. Thus, the large national racial gap in student suspensions, expulsions and police referrals in our public schools. Your investigation must not only “look” and “feel” fair, it must in truth and actuality, be fair. Recently, I painfully listened to a parent recording of a high school principal joking, laughing and dismissing an alleged sexual assault incident. For sure, this type of situation occurring in a school is no laughing matter. Which leads me to,
Rule #2: Check yourself!
As a principal, I approached any type of male-female sexual harassment or assault allegation reminding myself that I was bringing my “maleness” to the process. Thus, I always sought as a lead or co-investigator, a female Assistant Principal. Part of what we presently see playing out in the governmental and public square is an insensitivity and emotional disconnect from how young men and women should behave toward each other; the theme: “boys will be boys,” and men determining how women should behave and react to a male’s bad and/or illegal sexual behaviors: “Why was she there?” “Was it one or two beers?” “Why was she wearing that ‘provocative’ outfit?” These male-oriented “investigation-lite” discussions seem to be primarily focused on nullifying the female victim’s claims, while at the same time seeking to elevate and exonerate the male perpetrator’s personality. A real investigation is characterized by its commissioned purpose of seeking the truth through factual findings.
But there is another problem. Women in America are subject to (infected by) the same biased cultural belief system as the men who practice and perpetuate sexist beliefs. Perhaps the most frightening exposure of recent weeks are the number of women in our nation who subscribe to the “boys will be boys” philosophy. Or, who are willing, like our right-wing evangelicals, to ignore evil or illegal acts done to women for the sake of political expediency. It is important to note that our previously referenced laughing and mocking high school principal was a woman. Women principals should not get an automatic “gender pass,” as they may need to “check in” on their own thoughts and beliefs when male-female sexual-related incidents show up in their schools!
Rule #3: Set a high operational “preventative standard” for sexually related incidents.
Most principals can follow a step-by-step “response to a crisis” script once an incident has occurred. But the best principals thoughtfully and strategically design a “prevent the negative” incidents from occurring plan. As with all proactive behavioral modification strategies, the key is to first eliminate or limit the “nurturing” spaces for the emergence of a potentially negative event. Thinking, language and behavior are inextricably linked. Physical sexual aggressions; e.g., “uninvited touching,” are often preceded by forms of sexual “verbal violations;” e.g., inappropriate and unwelcomed sexual comments. This behavior then comes full circle (especially in high schools) when it enters the unofficial “cultural language” of students, including on social media. This intolerable behavior could even be officially sanctioned and codified in places like a senior yearbook.
Principals must have a school-wide cultural-linguistics plan to confront, educate and eliminate all forms of sexually denigrating language and behavior. You must make “small things” “big things.” Any type of male physical, written or verbal sexist behaviors, even when delivered in “jest,” or if the girls are perceived as encouraging these acts, must be stopped, rendering the “boys (acting badly are) just being boys” theme unacceptable.
Establishing and enforcing a very high standard for any type of sexist language and behavior might earn you a little “doing too much grief;” for some people (including parents) will push back against strict behavioral standards; that is, until something goes terribly wrong with their child and then you will receive a greater amount of grief for not having and enforcing high behavioral standards. As principal, you should protect children by wisely choosing what form of leadership grief you want to own!
Michael A. Johnson has served as a public schoolteacher, Science Skills Center director, principal and a school district superintendent. He also served as an adjunct professor of Science Education in the School of Education at St. John’s University. He recently completed a book on school leadership: “Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership.” [http://reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/]