The safety of our students is my most important priority; nothing matters more to me. I am keenly aware of the trust parents place in the School to provide an environment that is safe, supportive and respectful. As consumers of media, we are all aware of boundary crossings in the workplace and of predatory behavior toward students at schools and colleges. Not surprisingly, I am frequently asked how we at St. Mark's protect our students from abusive and unsafe situations. I am pleased to be able to answer these questions by describing an extensive and sophisticated array of policies and practices. At the same time, I know that we cannot be complacent about the topic, so we are constantly on the lookout for ways we can make our approach even better.
These policies and practices benefit from a school environment where students and faculty are highly sensitive to issues of personal safety. The St. Mark's Director of Counseling and Dean of Students report that our students are comfortable accessing resources on behalf of themselves and on behalf of others when any concern about safety arises. They also point out—and I have observed myself—that our faculty are comfortable discussing, both inside and outside the classroom, topics like the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment in the workplace. This culture of open discussion and high sensitivity helps ensure that our students feel protected and affirmed at St. Mark's.
We protect our students from becoming victims of boundary violations, harassment and abuse by faculty in a number of ways. First of all, we organize regular boundary training sessions for faculty. After two years of annual required full-day boundary training sessions, we now provide required boundary training sessions for new faculty every year and for 50% of our faculty every year (so every faculty member participates in this training on a two year cycle). This approach meets the standard of best practice, the standard I insist upon. That boundary training is backed up by clear and explicit language in our Employee Handbook, which faculty review every year.
Central to the dialogue among our School's leaders now is ensuring that faculty and students are aware of appropriate boundaries and of their resources should any concern about a possible boundary violation arise. In order to meet this standard, we have taken great care in the language about respect and safety that exists in our student handbook, and our Dean of Students and I regularly talk with students about what we have labeled RUSH: respect/understanding/safety/honesty, the four concepts that are central to all discussions of acting with high character at St. Mark's. Indeed, our Dean of Students has placed RUSH posters throughout the campus to reinforce these priorities, and he and I take every appropriate opportunity in School Meetings to make reference to one or more of these topics.
Also central to the dialogue among our School's leaders now is ensuring that our faculty have the tools to engage in challenging personal conversations. As we are all aware, it is far too easy to avoid beginning a conversation about an "elephant in the room" topic because we want to avoid discomfort, especially in an environment where we live in close proximity. To provide our faculty with the tools for beginning—and continuing—those conversations, we engaged in a faculty professional development day right after Thanksgiving helping faculty gain those tools and that greater comfort level. We plan to follow up with this day-long seminar with another such training exercise in June. I believe that helping faculty learn these tools—in this case having concrete suggestions about how to begin an awkward conversation--serves as a further means of ensuring safety for students.
We encourage students to think deeply about safety in a number of venues. Students hear statements about safety and appropriate values regularly. In addition to students hearing from me and our Dean of Students, our Chaplain—who is appropriately beloved—has given sermons that provide advice about "old fashioned dating," and about the Martin Buber distinction between an "I-it" relationship and an "I-thou" relationship. In addition, a few months ago, at an All School Assembly, our students heard motivational speaker Alexis Jones describe healthy relationships, identifying self-respect and mutual respect as at the core of these relationships. Our VI Formers watch the film The Hunting Ground, which documents the high incidence of sexual assault on college campuses, as we help our students prepare for the transition to the next level. An affinity group for girls, and an affinity group for boys, led by engaging faculty, meet regularly to provide a forum for discussion and reflection about healthy relationships and to provide information about resources if a relationship is feeling unhealthy in any way.
In addition to regular events where the values of safety and respect are reinforced, a number of formal programs ensure that students understand their rights and their avenues to get help if needed. Our III Formers participate in a peer discussion program every other week led by V Formers trained by our Counseling Staff. These discussions provide a forum that encourages openness and thus important sharing of information and receptivity to necessary information. Our IV Formers engage in a twelve week health class that focuses on healthy relationships, led by faculty trained for this purpose. During the student orientation program at the beginning of every school year, we explain legal realities in explicit terms. We emphasize, in particular, that there is no such thing as a consensual relationship with a person under 16.
As part of our emphasis on ensuring student safety, I am pleased to report that St. Mark's employs two full time psychological counselors. I know that students feel comfortable going to the counselors with personal concerns and concerns about peers, and I know that faculty also go to the counselors if they have concerns about a student.
I am confident that if concerns about a possible adult boundary violation were to develop, or possible unsafe student behavior, our counselors would know and would bring the matter promptly to me. The counselors, our Dean of Students, and I are mandated reporters to the Department of Children and Families, and we are quick to reach out to this agency in our capacity if we have any concern. We also have an excellent relationship with the Southborough Police Department, and the Dean of Students and I feel entirely comfortable discussing any matters of safety concern with them.
We are also aware that ensuring safety includes ensuring physical safety from intruders. We are, therefore, taking steps to safeguard our buildings in a best in class manner. Starting in April, all of our external doors will require a key card to open. The School's front door will also have an access system monitored by the Receptionist. We have undertaken lockdown drills and have incorporated feedback from these drills so as to ensure the highest possible level of safety should a violent intruder enter our campus.
We are aware that a warm community feeling is a defining characteristic of our School. We are committed to retaining that feeling while we also increase the level of protection against intruders that is an unfortunate reality of the times in which we live. We believe we can provide that level of protection in a way that is reassuring, thus reinforcing the comfortable atmosphere that we so value at St. Mark's.
While I wish that the realities of the world we live in did not necessitate such a high degree of attention to safety—in its many dimensions—given that reality, I am proud of the ways we are seeking to ensure that safety. I am also proud of the way we constantly assess our policies and practices, including seeking information from other organizations who are thinking as hard and as well as we are about providing an environment that is safe in every way.