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Protect the Vulnerable: Helping Schools Stop Sexual Misconduct

In addressing other exposures, schools may inadvertently increase the risk for sexual misconduct.
By: | April 2, 2018 • 6 min read

Stories of sexual impropriety have dominated headlines recently, as revelations of abuse by those in positions of power take center stage. While misconduct isn’t new, the societal spotlight is. And it has widened its scope beyond Hollywood to shine a light on sexual misconduct in athletics, workplaces, and schools.

“Today you are seeing more victims coming together, standing up and fighting back,” said Susan Kostro, Chief Underwriting Officer, Public Entities Practice, Liberty Mutual Insurance. “But one population may have a harder time finding its voice and is at significant risk for abuse: schoolchildren. “

An investigation by The Associated Press determined between 2011 and 2015, there were about 17,000 reported incidents of sexual abuse committed by fellow students in the U.S. Another report by The Boston Globe found that, since 1991, at least 67 New England private schools have fielded accusations that staffers sexually abused or harassed more than 200 students, resulting in at least 90 lawsuits.

“Schools are charged with providing a safe environment for students. When they fail, the consequences are severe,” said Steve Deig, Technical Director of Risk Control Services, Liberty Mutual Insurance. In addition to being responsible for the physical and emotional wellbeing of its students, schools must also protect their reputations and bottom lines.

To protect their students and themselves, schools need to understand their exposures to potential sexual misconduct, how to mitigate those risks, and how to respond if allegations arise.

Identifying the Exposure

There are two types of sexual misconduct and molestation (SMM) most common to the school environment — student against student, and staff against student.

“In either situation, the victims are usually among the most vulnerable — the youngest students and sometimes, those with disabilities,” Kostro said. “In other words, the students that need guidance and protection the most.”

Misconduct can take many forms, including staring or leering, suggestive gestures, “accidental” physical contact, bullying, sexual jokes or gossip, and outright offers or requests for sexual favors. The prevalence of smartphones, social media and texting makes it ever more difficult to identify when these actions are taking place. By going online, sexual predators can more easily take their behavior out of a public setting and away from the watchful eyes of peers, administrators, and parents.

“There are a lot more wrinkles compared to 10 to 15 years ago,” Deig said. “Today, educators use technology such as texting and social media professionally, but it also opens the door for inappropriate contact with students. And monitoring digital communications and enforcing safe school policies can often be problematic for districts.”

In addressing other exposures, schools may inadvertently increase the risk for sexual misconduct.  For instance, to protect staff and students against an active shooter, many schools permanently cover interior classroom doors and windows to minimize a potential shooter’s line of sight—even when a school is not undergoing an active shooter drill.

“But you can’t supervise what you can’t see,” Kostro said. By reducing visibility, schools may create opportunities for inappropriate one-on-one student/staff encounters, or horseplay and potential violence among unsupervised students if windows and doors remain covered after a drill.

Mitigating the Risk

The best approach to minimizing the risk of sexual misconduct is to be proactive and remove opportunities in the first place.

Keeping windows clear is a start. Having monitors walk the halls — checking empty classrooms, stairwells, cafeterias, parking lots, and recreational fields — also helps to increase natural surveillance and curtail any chance of improper behavior. Social media and technology policies can also delineate what are considered appropriate channels and types of communication between teachers and students.

But it all begins with thorough effective screening and hiring practices for not only staff but also volunteers to keep predators out of schools to begin with.

“One of the big problems we see is that some schools do not conduct background checks consistently,” Kostro said. “You want to do everything that the law allows you to do in terms of applicant screening. The bar for what is considered the appropriate level of due diligence has gone up. What was adequate 10 years ago is not enough today.”

As liability increases, so have claim settlements.

“If allegations are brought against a school accusing it of negligent hiring, improper training and supervision, failure to report, negligent retention—consequences can reach into the millions of dollars,” she said.

In addition to stringent screening and hiring practices, schools need clear incident-reporting policies that align with state and local regulations.

“Every jurisdiction has a different definition of child sexual abuse and different reporting rules,” Deig said. “The laws are designed to over-report. If you fail to report an incident in a timely manner, there could be repercussions against the school and individual in both civil and criminal courts.”

All members of faculty and staff should be trained not only on school policies that can affect child sexual abuse but also on jurisdictional requirements so they know how to identify improper behavior and what to do about it. Some may be hesitant to report potential abuse based on a gut feeling or suspicion, so a well-defined reporting method is critical for policies to be effective.

“Don’t take allegations lightly,” Kostro said. “Err on the side of the safety of the student. Investigate every claim and report every allegation or suspicion of abuse. By taking action in good faith, school officials are helping to protect students and can help build a defensible position should there be a claim.”

But even the most careful institution can’t prevent every incident. To that end, it’s imperative for schools to check their insurance coverage.

Pinpoint the Right Insurance Partner

Sexual misconduct and molestation (SMM) coverages vary from carrier to carrier, so it’s important to partner with an insurer that knows the local legal and regulatory landscape and understands the unique exposures of schools and school districts.

Because compliance is so important, the right insurer also should be able to provide guidance to legal resources and training services.

“A lot of liability issues and exposures intertwine with sexual misconduct. While we do provide training, we can also recommend the best resources that bring in legal counsel to advise on state regulations and how to respond to specific situations. Typically, the state’s Department of Education or Department of Child Services can provide excellent school specific and state-specific training on reporting and investigation procedures,” Kostro said.

In addition to its own sexual misconduct coverage, a school should require third-party contractors who have access to and come in contact with children to hold similar policies regarding sexual misconduct exposures. Standard general liability policies may not include coverage for such claims.

“Our SMM coverage is designed specifically for schools, and our claims professionals who are dedicated to youth-serving organizations are well-versed in the exposure. The same goes for our assigned defense counsel,” Kostro said.

Liberty Mutual also provides school teacher E&O and umbrella coverage in addition to its SMM policies.

“From underwriting a product coverage to claims and defense, this is an exposure where we’ve been developing expertise since we launched the Public Entities practice,” she said.

“Through our agents and brokers, the Liberty Mutual team has the knowledge around this exposure to understand schools’ concerns, advise them on where they can limit their risk, and ultimately, help advocate for them when issues arise.”

To learn more, visit https://business.libertymutualgroup.com/business-insurance/industries/public-entity-insurance-coverage.

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This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Liberty Mutual Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.




Liberty Mutual Insurance offers a wide range of insurance products and services, including general liability, property, commercial automobile, excess casualty and workers compensation.

More from Risk & Insurance

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4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.

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That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.

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Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]