Friday, November 2, 2012


Dear Readers,
From time to time we’ll enjoy the contribution of a guest blogger on the Trustee U page.  Today I’m delighted to present Debra Wilson, Legal Counsel at NAIS and featured speaker on our most recent Trustee U video podcast, entitled #1 Legal Issue for Schools: Student Safety.

In this blog, Debra Wilson highlights the importance of addressing student safety at the fiduciary level, as well as the need for maintaining our proper roles and responsibilities in the partnership between board and administration.  

Please feel free to add your thoughts and questions in the Comments section at the bottom of this page.

Debra Wilson, Legal Counsel at NAIS, writes:

It has been a little over a year since the facts of the Penn State sex abuse scandal broke. Since then, as often happens when a high profile case of this nature breaks, the news has been filled with more victims and institutions coming forward with facts and allegations about other instances of sexual abuse of minors. The independent school world has not been insulated from these troubling events. Sadly, there are almost no child related industries that have not been scarred by similar stories over time.

Many schools have been overwhelmed by even the idea that students in their care could be preyed on by the very people who should be taking the most care with our vulnerable charges. Many trustees are concerned, but they also don’t want to step too far over the line into school management territory. While the school leadership is the group to research and implement best practices and policies in this area, trustees have two important roles in the steps that schools need to take.

First, ensuring the safety of students is a fundamental part of the fiduciary obligation of a board of trustees. In the world of school risk management, student safety is firmly within the top three priorities. While the administration in an independent school may be responsible for creating policy and procedures in this area, the board should know that the school has all appropriate, up-to-date, policies and procedures in place and that it follows them. 

Ensuring the research, implementation, and compliance with the policies and practices in this area confirms that the correct steps are being taken and builds the trust between the board and school administration. Board members can be strong advocates for the school and educate the school’s community when they understand the steps the school administration takes to keep students safe.

Second, one of the key learnings from the Freeh Report ( is that a board should ask questions, and leadership should discuss issues related to substantial risk or exposure. These are all elements of the “no surprises” rule that leads to healthy board and school leadership relationships, as well as appropriate management of crisis situations. 

An important aspect of this rule is that the board and administration should have an understanding about what steps the administration might take in a variety of high risk exposure situations. As Dick Chait, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education noted in an article for Inside Higher Ed: “Every board has to strike a balance between two undesirable extremes: one is undue deference and the other is undue interference. That spectrum changes as a result of the issues.”[1] When the issues are particularly high risk, as in cases of student abuse or risk, the board will want to be more involved and aware.

This sliding scale is much more apparent after Penn State, and both boards and school leadership should have constructive conversations now to ensure that if something happens, both groups know what steps will be taken, who will be notified, and when the board as a whole might be brought in. Everyone involved should realize that the unfolding of these conversations will not be an exact science. Most situations will depend on the facts, but laying the foundation for the expectation of these communications can help in a crisis.

Finally, boards and school leadership teams need to enter into these overviews with a healthy sense of respect and trust for each other. These conversations can walk closer to the line between management and school governance than many schools may routinely encounter. However, having healthy conversations now can save schools from unhealthy breakdowns later.

          Debra, many thanks for these valuable insights.

[1] Read more:


Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families

Darkness to Light

Child Sexual Abuse: Reporting Guidelines

Handbook on Child Safety for Independent School Leaders

Guidelines for Dealing with Educator Sexual Misconduct

Crisis Response in Shifting Times: What Would We Have Done?

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