|by Paul Richards, Superintendent at The American School of Dubai|
It is not often that I have an out-of-body experience sitting in a professional training.
To be honest, I’m normally daydreaming about something or another. The moment took place last March while listening to Dr. Joe Sullivan during a two-day “deep dive” training on child protection and safeguarding, arranged by the Council of International Schools (CIS). Our school was hosting the event, and our entire senior leadership team was in attendance.
Dr. Sullivan was walking the group through a few case studies of teachers who had been passed along from school to school after some low-level concerns arose as to whether they were safe to work with children. In each of these cases, the teacher would do something creepy to make a student or colleague feel uncomfortable. An administrator would intervene and conduct a boundaries conversation with the teacher, communicating things like, “Don’t do this again”, or “You need to use better judgment.” The teacher would inevitably leave the school on his own accord, or worse, the school would move him along at the end of the school year. Later in the teacher’s career, he would inevitably be accused of a serious (and often criminal) transgression with a child.
The epiphany I had that day in Dr. Sullivan’s training was this:
"I alone am not capable or qualified to determine wheather someone is safe to work with children. We know that international schools are particularly attractive to adults who have a sexual interest in children, whether they be parents, teachers, or strangers; we are easy targets. Who was I to play judge and jury in suspected cases, and why was I giving the benefit of the doubt to people I really didn't know deeply?"
So I am now out of the business of evaluating whether someone is safe to work with children. I will leave that up to the experts like Dr. Sullivan.
What is my role to be then? While every school surely has a Child Protection Lead in place, I as the head of school will carry high the safeguarding torch, bringing emphasis and importance to this issue across our school community. I will ensure we have policies, practices, and procedures in place so our approach to keeping children safe is layered and comprehensive. When concerned about a teacher, I will get an expert’s report and not use my intuition. I will cultivate a reservoir of moral courage to draw from when I need to decide that a teacher should no longer be at our school. And furthermore, if a child protection concern was proven serious, I will ensure we break the cycle, preventing the teacher from moving on to a new school.
Finally, I must throw down the gauntlet with my peers—heads of school across the world—challenging them to not delegate these responsibilities to others on his or her team, or to avoid deep dive safeguarding training.
"Why must it be me as head of school who is directly involved?"
On a more cynical level, when a child protection crisis hits our school (and it will happen to all of us sooner or later), if the head of school is not trained in child safeguarding, he or she cannot show that a proactive approach to child protection has been taken, or is not seen as leading a community’s swift ethical response to the crisis, then it is inevitable that the head will certainly lose one’s job, and maybe one’s career. The stakes are that high.
The wolves are among us in our flock. Though the number in schools is very small, this fact is certain. Heads of school: let us arm ourselves with the knowledge, skills and tools to keep the young and vulnerable safe. And do not do it alone. There is a network of professionals like you fighting the good fight.