X
ARTICLE

What If My Student Discloses a Sexual Assault?

This guidance from experts at the National Association of School Psychologists can help educators respond if a student discloses abuse or assault.

In recent weeks, stories of sexual assault and harassment—concerning well-known people abusing high-profile positions of power—have dominated the news cycle. For a number of reasons, these stories could lead to an increased number of student disclosures of assaulted, privately or during class discussion. Students may, for example, recognize how they have been sexually assault or harassed by someone in a position of power or a position meant to be nurturing, responsible or parental. They may feel inspired by the survivors who are coming forward. Or they may experience strong emotions related to past abuse and want to talk about them.

This leaves teachers in the position of trying to balance the role of a caring confidant with the role of a mandatory reporter. Both roles require putting the child’s welfare ahead of the educator’s discomfort. And both require that teachers know how to best support the child before a disclosure ever occurs.

Teaching Tolerance asked for professional guidance from two crisis experts at the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP): Dr. Stephen E. Brock of California State University and Dr. Melissa A. Louvar Reeves of Winthrop University. Alongside guidelines from several organizations that specialize in trauma and sexual assault, their professional advice offers best practices for educators who may witness student disclosure and want to know the answers to these “What if…?” questions. 

 

What if a student discloses to me privately, but wants me to keep it confidential? 

According to NASP experts:

“If the act being disclosed is a criminal act, or might be reasonably judged as such, confidentiality does not apply. All adult school staff members have a duty to report. Immediate contact with local law enforcement or child protective services is indicated,” Brock and Reeves agree. “If it is verified that the act has already been reported, then and only then could the student-teacher conversations about a history of sexual assault be kept confidential. However, such a traumatic stressor can be associated with significant mental health challenges (e.g., PTSD) so it would be important to encourage (or help them to obtain) mental health assistance from a professional with experience working with sexual assault survivors.”

 

Additional resources 

The National Education Association also offers an online best practices guide in supporting students who have experienced sexual assault or harassment. This includes tips on how to develop a safety plan for the student and how to make sure students understand your role as a support system but also as a mandatory reporter. 

As the NEA cautions, “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.” Educators should resist promising to keep information a secret or promising that the problem will be immediately fixed. Instead, let students know you will do everything you can to help them, and that includes the fact that you have to look for help if the student tells you they are being hurt.

If you’re unsure of your reporting responsibilities, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network provides a database of state laws regarding sexual assault, including mandatory reporting laws that apply to educators.

 

So I know my legal obligation, but what is the best way to speak with a student who has experienced sexual assault and disclosed to me privately?

According to NASP experts:

The NASP’s online guidance for supporting students experiencing trauma offers a blueprint for how to respond to disclosure, with advice on what to do once the conversation moves to a private space and what to do after that conversation. Their recommendations include: 

  • Help children manage their feelings by teaching and modeling effective coping strategies or identifying effective soothing techniques (e.g., taking deep breaths or carrying a personal item that brings comfort).
  • Allow children to tell the story of the trauma they experienced, as they see it, so they can begin to release their emotions and make sense of what happened. 
  • Respond calmly and compassionately, but without displaying shock or judgment.
  • Follow your school’s reporting procedures.
  • Consider modifying assignments, helping the child with organizing classroom responsibilities and allowing the child to leave class to see a school counselor when needed.

Read the full list of recommendations here

 

Additional resources 

In private conversation, speaking with a student survivor of sexual assault means becoming an active listener first, before reassuming your role as an active educator. Use these tips to improve your active listening skills and avoid things like asking “why” questions or offering quick reassurance that can stymie communication. 

 

What if a student discloses the assault they experienced more publicly, such as during classroom discussion?

According to NASP experts:

“Acknowledge the disclosure and continue the conversation immediately after class, but in private. Let the class know that gossip about these matters is harmful.”

 

Additional resources

How a disclosure occurs may affect an educator’s response and the challenge they face to maintain the student’s safety and confidentiality. For example, discussions about the current news cycle may subsequently lead to a disclosure from a student during class discussion in front of their peers.

The Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (ReCAPP) provides guidelines for teachers who face this situation. 

ReCAPP suggests that teachers acknowledge the comment in the moment rather than ignore it, and try to relate it to the lesson to affirm the student’s courage. Offer to talk more after class if the student feels comfortable. This keeps the classroom conversation from focusing on the student who has disclosed but still expresses care and valuation. 

 

What if the student disclosure involves a fellow teacher or other colleague?

According to NASP experts:

It doesn’t matter who the perpetrator is; the response doesn’t change.

 

Additional resources

An upcoming report from the National Association of Independent Schools and The Association of Boarding Schools offers descriptive recommendations for schools’ and educators’ responses to instances of sexual abuse that occur within a school. So, if a student disclosure involves a colleague, teachers can rest assured that these suggestions are well researched.  

The report details a step-by-step process of helping students heal, outlined by 13 key action steps. The following examples apply to any educator, at any level, who bears witness to a disclosure: 

  • Know and follow the law, without exception. 
  • Respond quickly and compassionately. 
  • Listen and respond with empathy to the person reporting abuse.
  • Never dismiss an allegation as a false complaint of a troubled child. 
  • Protect the confidentiality and privacy interests of the reporter and potential victims.
  • Activate your response team as soon as you receive an allegation. 

 

What if my student is a boy, transgender, nonbinary or gender-fluid? Does my student’s gender identity change the way I should respond?

According to NASP experts:

“No, and it is important to be sensitive to the reality that all persons, regardless of gender identity, are vulnerable to sexual assault. By age 18, one-fourth of girls and one-sixth of boys have been sexually assaulted,” Brock and Reeves explain. “The vast majority (85 percent) of sexual assaults on children and adolescents are perpetrated by a familiar (usually trusted) person.”

 

Additional resources

The organization Faculty Against Rape also offers guidance on “how to respond when a student discloses sexual assault.” The group points out that different students (such as boys or students of color) face different social barriers in disclosing their status as a survivor of sexual assault. Educators should be responsive to these circumstances.

 

What if I’m discussing the current news cycle in class? How can I discuss sexual assault or harassment in a safe way but remain mindful of survivors of sexual assault in my classroom?

According to NASP experts:

“Always preface such discussion with this reality and acknowledge that the conversation is a difficult one. Let students know that if they are at any point uncomfortable, they may ask to leave,” Brock and Reeves advise. “And make certain that resources are available to talk individually with students who want to process their own stories and experiences.”

Educators hold great responsibility—a responsibility that becomes even more amplified and complex when students disclose experiences of abuse or harassment. There’s no way to fully prepare for the difficult task of seeing your student in distress and then having to take action both quickly and carefully. 

But educators can mitigate concerns by knowing the law, knowing best practices and knowing their limits. A child’s safety and welfare may depend on it.

Collins is a senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.