School district officials nationwide are under constant pressure to improve the safety, security and overall well-being of their staff and students. When allegations are made or an incident occurs, schools in publicly funded districts are responsible for following up before requesting external help.
Internal school investigators may be asked to investigate incidents regarding student conduct, safety, security, attendance, academics, human resources and more. Conducted properly, school investigations can increase enrollment, decrease liability, improve student learning, raise employee morale and boost overall school success.
Even one safety incident puts your students, staff and school at risk.
Download our free roadmap to learn eight effective steps you can take to keep your school safe.Get the Cheat Sheet
This article will explain how to conduct a proper school investigation into any type of incident. Read on to learn how to properly navigate every step of the investigation process, including the initial allegations, the planning, the interviews, the evidence, the conclusion and the report.
But first, an often overlooked strategy: using investigation software in your process.
Case Management Software for School Investigations
No amount of experience or knowledge can top the organization, consistency and guidance that case management software provides. Every phase of an investigation is made easier with software:
- Administrators can pick the right investigator for each job and assign cases easily.
- Investigators will find it easier to develop a plan, stay within scope, record and summarize interviews, upload and track evidence, document pertinent facts and write the report.
- Principals can quickly identify areas and people of risk, track trends and prioritize risk initiatives.
Want to learn more? We wrote an eBook that explains how case management software can improve school safety by monitoring risk and eliminating blind spots. Download it here.
1. Receiving the Initial Allegations
The number one rule of investigations is to take all allegations seriously. However, this does not always mean a full investigation is necessary.
Don’t take this step lightly: failing to investigate serious allegations could cause big issues later on. If a school official chooses not to investigate the allegations, they must document the decision thoroughly with a defense that could hold up during questioning.
If the school decides that the allegations warrant a full investigation, the first step is to determine which policies or laws the accused may have violated. (Or, in more serious situations, the first step is to remove the accused from school property and protect the victim from further harm)
2. Complying with Relevant Laws
Anyone involved with a school investigation needs a thorough understanding of the laws and regulations governing their actions. Federal and state laws require school investigations in situations concerning unlawful discrimination or harassment.
For investigations into school personnel, federal laws with relevant sections include:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
- Americans with Disabilities Act
- Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993
For investigations into students, review your knowledge of the following federal laws:
- Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
- The Education Code
- Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act
State laws for school-related investigations vary by location.
3. Choosing an Investigator
Some schools may have a number of internal investigators to choose from, others may have only one. No matter your resources, it’s essential that the person assigned to investigate is impartial and is capable of acting independently.
That means the investigator must not have any personal, professional or financial conflicts of interest. Remember that a conflict of interest can be actual or perceived, both of which can impact the validity and legitimacy of an investigation.
Like any other job you are hiring for, the chosen investigator must have the skills, knowledge, qualifications and experience to carry out the task. Ideally, the investigator will be objective, thorough, ethical, professional and a capable writer.
4. Planning the Investigation
A victim has come forward and reported inappropriate behavior. Or, a suspicious neighbor has flagged an enrollment violation. Or, there’s been a safety incident requiring an investigation.
No matter the allegations, an investigator begins by identifying the scope of the issue.
Identify the Scope
The scope is identified by asking: what policy has the reported behavior or incident violated? What expectation has it failed to meet?
Consider the primary parties involved, too. Does the incident involve instructional personnel such as a classroom teacher or librarian, or does it involve administrative personnel such as a principal or front desk secretary? Is a bus driver involved, a student, a parent or a stranger on school property?
Investigation Plan Steps
Your investigation plan will outline steps for:
- Obtaining, reviewing and analyzing documents
- Identifying and collecting evidence
- Interviewing involved parties (witness, victim, subject, complainant)
- Analyzing the facts of the investigation
- Writing the investigative report
Consider Confidentiality Requirements
Every school investigation will involve a student, faculty or non-faculty member, all of whom have privacy rights that must be respected. While an investigator should never promise total anonymity, they should commit to respect privacy to the greatest extent possible.
Not only is it an ethical decision to keep private information under wraps, but it is also a legal one. If private details are spread beyond a “need to know” basis, the subject may have reasonable grounds to file a claim of defamation. This is especially important when dealing with children who may not realize the repercussions of gossip.
Student data is protected by FERPA, an extremely strict data privacy law. Download the FERPA Compliance Checklist to see if your investigations are compliant.
Complainants, witnesses and even victims may require extra protection from retaliation. If the subject of the investigation is a person of power, perhaps the school bully, and he or she is being investigated for bullying a younger or smaller student, the fear of retaliation is fair.
Tips for protecting confidentiality include:
- Locking up private communications, documents and evidence
- Discussing the allegations or involved parties only as necessary
5. Conducting Interviews
Investigators must follow a thorough list of best practices for every interview they conduct. These best practices prevent the investigator from contaminating the interview and the entire investigation process.
Not sure what you should be asking? Download this cheat sheet for access to 20 Questions to Ask in an Investigation Interview.
Before the interview, brush up on employee and student rights. Schedule private, in-person interviews. This should be practiced in a school setting but if it’s not, secondary witnesses can be interviewed by phone. Prepare a list of questions (but also be ready to improvise). Let the interviewee know that the conversation is confidential.
During the interview, be professional and objective. Establish a positive rapport by actively listening and being cautious of your tone and body language. Position your body to be open and not intimidating.
After the interview, walk the interviewee through the remaining steps. Reiterate the confidentiality of the conversation.
Interviewing the Complainant
A school investigator should meet with the complainant first to discuss their allegations.
Skip this step if the complainant reported the incident directly to the investigator assigned to the case. But, if the allegations were reported to someone else or through a hotline, the investigator must meet with the complainant personally to explain the investigation process and ask questions.
The complainant should repeat their allegation to the investigator with as much information as possible. Ask if the complainant if they’ve talked to anyone else about the incident and to name anyone else who may have information that will aid in the investigation.
Ideally, the complainant will identify victims and witnesses of the incident. This is the individual (or individuals) the investigator should meet with next while the events are fresh in their mind.
Interviewing the Victim/Witness
A school investigator must conduct all investigations in a private place with limited distractions. Victims and witnesses should never be interviewed with the accused nearby as this can alter their answers.
Use the funnel approach for witness interviews. Begin with light questions such as their contact information. Their name, age, date of birth and phone number are all easy questions that help to build a baseline for the interviewee’s communication style when answering truthfully.
Narrow in on more detailed questions about the incident. Inquire about the who, what, when, where, why and how. The goal is to obtain specific, truthful facts about the complaint.
If the interviewee is having a difficult time providing information, an investigator should never suggest answers. Allow a period of silence between questions to prompt the interviewee to tack on additional information.
The investigator should end the interview by providing his or her own contact information and invite the interviewee to get in touch if they remember any additional information or if they need to report retaliation.
Interviewing the Accused
Save the interview with the accused for last.
This interview has two main goals. The first is to provide the accused with a chance to respond to the allegations. The second is to gather information from an alternate perspective.
Explore the relationship between the accused and the complainant. Their history may be useful later when it’s time to determine the credibility of each interviewee.
Since several interviews will have already taken place at this point, avoid sharing facts. An investigator should never reveal information in an attempt to get the accused to talk.
Interviewing Young Children
The goal of any interview is to obtain information that is complete, reliable and accepted in court. The younger your interviewee, the harder it becomes to meet this goal. Children may find it difficult to answer questions reliably or understand complex ideas.
Watch our webinar, Interviewing Children in an Investigative Setting, to learn about the complexities of interviewing child witnesses and victims.
If your investigation requires an interview with a student, keep in mind that a younger person may:
- Be more susceptible to suggestions and leading questions.
- Not understand the idea of “different perspectives”.
- Not understand concepts such as time, detail, distance and age.
- Be able to understand what’s being said but unable to express oneself in return.
- Lack the vocabulary to communicate well.
6. Analyzing Credibility
Analyzing interview statements for credibility is a critical task for the school investigator. Not everything can be taken at face value especially when dealing with students. Younger children may forget certain details or find it hard to answer questions, whereas older students may bend the truth or answer dishonestly.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when analyzing credibility:
- Is the testimony believable?
- Did the person exhibit signs of lying?
- Did the person have a reason to lie?
- Does this person have a history of lying?
- Is there evidence that corroborates what was said?
Investigators can try re-interviewing someone if they’re uncertain about credibility. This way, if the interviewee tells a similar story the second time around, they’re more likely to be telling the truth. However, if the interviewee makes statements inconsistent with what was said the first time, they may not be a reliable source of information.
7. Collecting Physical and Digital Evidence
Physical and digital evidence are useful in documenting investigation facts and supporting the conclusion. They help to determine whether or not the allegations are true and may even identify other areas requiring an investigation.
School investigations have a lot of unique pieces of evidence, including:
- Seating charts
- Class schedules
- Attendance records
- Student records
- Personnel records
- Desk contents
- Written reports
- Project files
Investigators will want to collect the standard evidence items too, such as:
- Court documents
- Computer history logs
- Social media posts
- Text messages
- Letters or written notes
- Diary entries
Clearly identify every piece of physical evidence, then store each item in a safe, yet accessible, place.
Create a document that lists each item and details the owner of the item, the location and date of collection and a summary of its significance. A Chain of Custody acts as a paper trail and will be useful to trace evidence if an item goes missing or is tampered with.
Download this Chain of Custody Template to use for your own school investigations.
If the investigation involves a student, there’s a high chance a lot of evidence will be digital. Children and teenagers often leave a trace of their whereabouts and activities through social media posts, text messages and computer history.
Digital evidence requires extra attention. It’s important to extract all digital evidence quickly, before it can be deleted, and to save it properly, so it can be retrieved.
8. Reaching a Conclusion
The investigator must then look at the results of the investigation, including the original report, the interviews, the evidence and any other facts from the investigation to determine if the action(s) occurred and to what degree.
If requested, the investigator will also have to provide a disciplinary recommendation. If the allegations are true and the subject of the investigation is a faculty member, the principal should immediately remove that person from their regular duties. The health, safety and welfare of students must always take priority.
After the investigation, the investigator will write an investigation report detailing all of the interviews, credibility assessments, physical and digital evidence and other facts that led to this conclusion.
9. Writing the Report
The investigation report must be accurate, timely, logical, objective and organized. Use short, clear sentences and include all information, even if it doesn’t support the conclusion. It is illegal to leave out certain details because they don’t fit the expected conclusion.
An investigation report should include the following sections:
- Case information
- Investigation plan
- Case notes
- Interview summaries
- Interview reports
- Evidence list
For more information about writing an investigation report, visit our Ultimate Guide.
Or, write reports more quickly, accurately and consistently by using a template. Download ours here: Investigation Report Template for Schools.