It’s like something right out of a Charles Dickens novel.
The state agency that examines child abuse and neglect allegations in Illinois has been investigating reports of school employees grabbing children by the wrists, shoving them into walls and throwing them to the ground.
What’s perhaps more shocking is that this abuse allegedly took place at Gages Lake School, which serves young children with behavioral and emotional disabilities.
According to reporting by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune, teachers and aides at the center of the investigations have resigned from the school. At least one of them is facing criminal charges; prosecutors allege he used excessive force on students.
It is, in short, a crisis that will no doubt take Gages Lake School years to overcome – and perhaps a useful reminder to school administrators across the U.S. about the importance of conducting thorough employee investigations.
None of this is easy, we know.
Workforce demographics are shifting. New laws are constantly popping up. Managers make mistakes because they aren’t properly trained or they’re under pressure to resolve complaints quickly. Employees are more aware of their rights.
No wonder conducting an effective internal investigation that will withstand legal scrutiny can be one of the most challenging duties facing administrators today.
Whether we’re talking about an elementary or high school, here are a few pointers.
First, know that employers are legally mandated to investigate harassment, discrimination, retaliation, safety and certain other types of complaints. There are penalties for failing to investigate, in fact.
Once the decision to investigate has been made, create a plan that answers these questions:
The point is to clearly define the purpose and scope of the investigation.
A properly documented and completed written summary of the complaint made as soon as possible after the initial report is invaluable if the matter results in litigation. It demonstrates that the school district was cognizant of its ethical and legal obligations and that it took the complaint seriously.
Also, if an employee is the subject of a complaint that may involve ongoing or future harm, a suspension (with pay if necessary) or an administrative leave with pay ought to be considered until a thorough investigation can be completed.
It’s critical that due process is adhered to, as well as specific and detailed records maintained throughout.
Your investigator’s job isn’t to find out whether the accused employee is guilty or innocent, but to determine whether it’s likely that an incident took place.
Should that be the case, you’ll need to forward the case to law enforcement, meaning either police or the county or district attorney’s office, as well as your state’s department of education.
There’s more to all of this, but by following these investigative best practices and reporting obligations, an administrator can reduce their district’s liability while fulfilling their statutory obligations to protect students.
And, yes, it can be a Dickensian nightmare regardless, but having a plan and following it can help your school lower its liability exposure and back to its core mission: educating the children.
Robert Simones is an Insurance Advisor at CCIG. He can be reached at 720-212-2059 or Robert.Simones@thinkccig.com.
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