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Protecting children in your care

A hand protecting children

In the third article in the series, discussing child safeguarding, IB World magazine speaks to an IB World School that is working to protect its students following a serious incident.

In 2014, it was discovered that a school teacher abused more than 54 students between 2009 and 2013. The Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) report found there had been opportunities to recognize the risks he posed, but a lack of leadership, staff not knowing how to recognize the signs of a sex offender and a reluctance to report a concern without “firm evidence” were cited as the main reasons he was not stopped sooner.

This was not an isolated incident. He worked at nine schools during his teaching career. It’s not known how many children were affected. He would commit his crimes on unauthorized and unsupervised school trips.

When Gregory Hedger became superintendent at Escuela Campo Alegre (ECA) in Venezuela, in 2012, he immediately put a stop to unsupervised trips not sponsored by the school.

He says: “We looked at the relationship that existed between faculty and administration. We needed to create a culture where teachers felt they could speak to me if they had any concerns. We better educated students, faculty and parents on the topic, talking about what kinds of relationships are okay, and not okay, between students and adults in a school environment, and shared LSCB information and its findings. We used the Keeping Children Safe inventory, which is a list of things we need to do every year to make sure we are taking our safeguarding responsibilities seriously.”

Gregory Hedger - safeguarding part 3

Gregory Hedger

Creating a code of conduct

 ECA has formed a Code of Conduct, which lists what kind of behaviours are appropriate, helping students and staff understand what is and isn’t acceptable. It now has ‘trip leader guidelines’ available on its website, and regular parent education classes reassure parents that their children are kept safe. Parents are also informed of when teachers will be discussing child protection with students.

“We educate our students, parents and faculty with our Code of Conduct and, every year, faculty have to sign it,” explains Hedger. “It’s focused on keeping children and teachers safe, too. It clearly identifies what is and isn’t acceptable and as long as adults are engaging in a behaviour that is acceptable then they don’t have anything to be concerned about.”

Any adult that regularly enters ECA has to sign the Code of Conduct and take part in a workshop. This includes drivers, nannies, after-school activity teachers and substitute teachers. “It’s a very involved process,” says Hedger. “We can’t ensure that no one is ever going to abuse children, but our goal is to give a very strong message that we will not tolerate behaviour that is harmful to children.”

Hedger has also teamed with the International Task Force on Child Protection (ITFCP) to help protect students. He spoke at the Association for the Advancement of International Education (AAIE) annual conference in February 2016 about ECA’s strategies for keeping children safe.

 An informal environment is a problem

According to the LSCB report, the accused teacher, quickly established himself at his schools as an “informal” teacher who normalized having students in his room on residential trips, watching boys shower and making sexual jokes.

“One of the big things that makes international schools a target for paedophiles is there tends to be an informal atmosphere between students and faculty and this allows boundaries to be blurred,” says Hedger. “This is one of the things we’ve really changed at ECA. We’ve firmed up the boundaries and created a more professional and transparent culture.

“People would think that the very informal approach would create transparency but it’s actually the opposite. By being very clear about things and getting people to understand boundaries, you are more transparent and make it possible for people to question things.”

If students and staff find someone engaging in a behaviour that is against the Code of Conduct they can report it via an online platform, which is only accessed by Hedger and ECA board members. “Board members don’t get involved in investigating an allegation but they can make sure that I do,” says Hedger. “If anyone was to report someone close to me, they can rest assured that I’ll take it seriously.”

ECA has fortified its recruitment process. Hedger has added specific questions and checks the FBI registry for every candidate considered. He says he will also use the new Interpol initiative when it’s ready. The single international police certificate will make it much easier for international educators to get background checked as all 190 Interpol countries share information.

 Sending a strong message

ECA has developed an international reputation as a school that is doing all it can to keep children safe. Every year, it reviews its progress to ensure its child safeguarding measures don’t fall by the wayside and to see what else it can do.

“There must be a commitment to putting the structures and tools in place for keeping children safe,” says Hedger. “This discussion needs to go beyond ‘health classes’ and be very specific and clear. It needs to address the Code of Conduct and how to report suspicions.

It’s of vital importance that we move away from informality and make it a more clear and structured process.

How we created a faculty and staff code of conduct

We began the process by examining models from other schools and organizations. We looked at the AIS Child Protection Handbook and adapted these models to our school and culture. Our code of conduct was then shared with various members of our community for feedback, including faculty, parents, and high school students. It was then brought to our Board of Directors. Each year, all adults who work with students on our campus must attend a presentation and sign the code. In addition, it is reviewed with all students annually. Schools are welcome to use our code of conduct as a model.