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Proper Protocols for Investigations at Independent Schools

The issue with many education administrative investigations oftentimes is a lack of due process. Without a formal process, it’s tough for school officials to conduct a prompt, fair investigation that respects the rights of all parties.

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The issue with many education administrative investigations oftentimes is a lack of due process. Without a formal process, it’s tough for school officials to conduct a prompt, fair investigation that respects the rights of all parties.

Many school investigations examine allegations of sexual discrimination, harassment and assault, domestic violence, stalking or any other gender-based harm listed in the school’s anti-discrimination policy. This may involve interactions between students and faculty, staff, vendors or anyone else associated with the institution.

Because it examines policy violations, the investigation must occur independently of a law enforcement investigation. It’s the school’s job to determine whether the incident violated school policy, whereas law enforcement’s job is to determine whether the incident violated the criminal law.

The issue with many education administrative investigations oftentimes is a lack of due process. Without a formal process, it’s tough for school officials to conduct a prompt, fair investigation that respects the rights of all parties.

Failing to respond to and fix a discriminatory environment may mean a loss of funding from alumni, donors, and federal, state and local governments. To mitigate the risk, every educational institution needs a formal, thorough process for receiving, investigating and resolving violations.

While the specific type of investigation will mandate which tasks should be performed, there are several common steps to consider. The following is a basic investigative plan that can be used as a general overlay and customized with the specific tasks needed for your inquiry.

Verify the Occurrence

Everything starts here. Once an allegation has been raised, the verification process begins.

  • Is the report a result of rumors?
  • Could there be more to the story?
  • Is there any physical evidence of the incident?
  • Is this possible?

Alleged Violation

The next step is to determine what potential violation is at issue. Criminal allegations are different from administrative and policy violations. Criminal violations most often violate administrative and policy procedures, but the reverse may not be the case. Once we understand what the alleged violations may be, we can determine:

  • What exactly occurred?
  • Does the report fit the allegation or is it another offense?

Elements of the Violation

Understanding what elements are needed to establish a violation allows the investigator to determine what information is needed to prove or disprove a violation. There may be additional administrative violations that need to be addressed as well. Are the allegations:

  • Legal/criminal
  • Policy violations
  • Procedural violations
  • Administrative violations

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Identify the Targets of the Investigation

This is where the details of the investigation become critical. Understanding who is potentially involved in the inquiry helps plan the remaining steps.

  • Is the suspect known?
  • Is more than one suspect involved?
  • Is notification to the involved parties necessary or required?

Assign the Appropriate Investigator

Ensuring true independence and impartiality is essential at this point.

  • Is there any improper relationship or conflict of interest, real or perceived?
  • Is there any known or perceived bias?
  • Should outside personnel or resources be involved?

Conduct Interviews/Collect Facts and Relevant Information

Now that the investigation is fully underway, information gathering is continual.

  • Ensure and maintain confidentiality of the process
  • Maintain integrity of evidence and the investigation
  • Identify and maintain alternative avenues of communication and information gathering

Review Information and Verify

Receiving information does not necessarily mean it is truthful information. All information must be verified, and a determination must be made as to credibility.

  • Compare information received
  • Identify any gaps and inconsistencies

Documentation

The final stage of the investigation is the documentation of the findings, whether written or verbal. Results must be reported to the school and dissemination of the findings must remain highly restricted until it is time to be released elsewhere.

  • Restrict dissemination
  • Treat all documentation as if it may be used for litigation

Lastly, by following the above steps, a complete inquiry will be assured, and the 3 C’s of Investigation are addressed:

  • Competence – Assigning the right individuals to gather facts
  • Corroboration – Verify all information
  • Common Sense – Common sense must be woven continually throughout the phases of the fact- finding process

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