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Independent schools: How to communicate about allegations of sexual abuse. A 5-step guide to prevent communication disasters and minimise negative publicity.

The Sunday Times this week reported that independent schools are being urged by the new chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) to be as transparent as possible with parents when allegations of sexual assault are made against staff or pupils.

It is the right sentiment but often difficult to do in practice.

For a start, schools may not have much information – particularly when the case is a non-recent one. And when they do have the detail, revealing it could be a contempt of court.

What’s more, many schools have found local police forces to be less than co-operative when it comes to sharing information (though others report more collaborative relationships).

Picking a way though this terrain can be very tough – particularly given the distressing subject matter and heightened emotions that are inevitably involved.

Yet for all the challenges, HMC Chair Mike Buchanan is right: it is essential that schools foster a culture of trust with all their stakeholders, and this means being as open as possible when such cases arise.

At Alder, we suggest schools take at least 5 practical steps as soon as they hear of an actual or potential case:

  1. First, they should anticipate the communication needs of different stakeholders. Which audience is most important? What does good communication look like from their point of view? Who is going to communicate with them?

  Though not essential, a ‘stakeholder map’ will help bring discipline and structure to this process.

  1. Schools should draft different communication packs for media, parents, staff and any other interested parties – and make sure these are approved by their legal team before they are used.
  2. They should ensure key staff are aware of protocols for handling incoming enquiries from all different sources, and double check that the SMT is comfortable with the roles and responsibilities set out in the crisis plan.
  3. They must make sure there is software in place to monitor all mentions of the case on social and digital media.
  4. They should consider what secondary questions might arise so they can mitigate the risks associated with the bunching of a number of negative stories.

Alder has unrivalled experience in helping independent schools at times of uncertainty and change. We advise schools on all aspects of crisis communication and planning, and on how to prepare for the Goddard Inquiry.

For a no obligation discussion about how we can help you at such times, please call us on 020 7692 5675.

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