Best practice standard is best medicine for prevention

By Jack McCalmon, Esq.
Director of VIRTUS® Programs and Services

My VIRTUS® travels have taken me to many places, and I have met many dedicated people committed to preventing child sexual abuse and wrongdoing at their archdiocese or diocese. But change, even positive change, can create interesting odder for debate.

During a recent VIRTUS® meeting at a diocese, the issue of screening and selection was explored. I discussed the fact that best practices standards require a church or religious organization to conduct a background and reference check on every staff member—regardless whether they interact with children—and on all volunteers who interact with children. A participant in the back of the room raised his hand and said, “If you want me to do a background and reference check on every staff member and on every volunteer who interacts with children, you’re nuts.” It was neither the first nor will it be the last time that someone will call me “nuts.” And, actually, I appreciated the opening because it was an excellent opportunity to illustrate the value of best practices standards. “You know,” I replied, “It is a nutty time we live in—a time for best practices nuts like me.”

“A year ago, if you had told me that I’d soon be required to remove my shoes to board an airplane, I probably would have called you nuts. But today, I take off my shoes and I feel much safer because I am asked to do so.”

While my comments were being mulled in the collective conscience of the audience, a priest in the front row put a fitting conclusion on the debate by saying it doesn’t matter how much time it takes or how much money it costs to conduct background and reference checks—if the end result is one more safe child. In his own words: “It is worth the cost, no matter what it takes.”

Best practice is a standard. For risk control, it is a standard of effective protocols, procedures and methods for preventing and responding to risk. And it is through the best practice standard that an archdiocese or diocese can best emerge from sexual misconduct allegations or any crisis. Others throughout history, faced with crisis, have proven the power of implementing the best practice standard.

In Chicago, during the fall of 1982, seven people mysteriously died. After a thorough investigation, authorities determined that the cause of death was intentional poisoning from the lacing of Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules with more than 65 milligrams of cyanide. Johnson and Johnson, the maker of Extra-Strength Tylenol, faced a crisis—not a crisis of its own doing, but a crisis just the same. Horrible and painful death was now associated with the name Tylenol. Experts speculated that this long-time market front-runner was doomed. Johnson and Johnson acted quickly and followed best practice protocols for managing a crisis and implementing best practice methods for safety. Even though an outsider tampered with the bottles, Johnson and Johnson took full responsibility for the crisis. They quickly alerted customers, pulled bottles from the shelves, and provided a refund to anyone who purchased Tylenol in the Chicago area. Safety of the community was paramount and finances were not a concern. Johnson and Johnson assisted authorities and the authorities credited them with helping catch the wrongdoers.

Johnson and Johnson then re-released Tylenol six weeks later in triple-seal, tamper-resistant packages, and Johnson and Johnson made presentations about their package safety to medical professionals across the country. In less than a year, Johnson and Johnson had taken Tylenol from deathbed to community guardian and became a recognized market leader on packaging safety.

The best practice standard for pharmaceutical safety is similar to the best practice standard for child abuse prevention. The best practice standard for preventing a wrong—like child sexual abuse—requires not only screening and selection procedures, but also strong training that is continuous and interactive so that it can actually change behavior. Best practices demand that the training be monitored and evaluated to determine:

  • Who has and has not trained,
  • Whether the training was effective, and
  • Whether the trainer and format were effective.

Because people learn differently, the standard requires that training be provided in different formats (written, visual, and auditory) and in multiple modalities (such as seminars, videos, books, and web-based training courses).

When child sexual abuse does occur, prompt action is required. Best practices requires:

  • Well-written, easy to understand policies,
  • Proven procedures for response,
  • Safe methods for people to report,
  • Understanding personnel to receive the reports,
  • Protocol that protects claimants and witnesses against retaliation,
  • Neutral fact-finders that can perform prompt and professional investigations, and
  • Teams of people that can make reasonable, educated, and unbiased decisions regarding what actions to take.

These and other best practices standards are the foundation of the VIRTUS® program. And the public takes notice when an organization bases decisions on the best practice standard.

The Diocese of Manchester is one of the original VIRTUS® program pilots. It is also facing a crisis of its own regarding clergy child sexual abuse. Rev. Edward Arsenault, Chancellor of the Diocese of Manchester and Chairman of the Board of The National Catholic Risk Retention Group, was at the epicenter of the Diocese’s response to the crisis.

Many months before the crisis, Father Arsenault began implementing the PROTECTING GOD’S CHILDREN™ program. He first trained Manchester’s schoolteachers and administrators, and then trained a cadre of trainers—personnel from Catholic Social Services—to train the remaining priests, staff, and volunteers. When the crisis erupted in March, Manchester was already fully immersed in the best practices underpinnings of the VIRTUS® program.

“The VIRTUS® Program played a major role in our response to the crisis,” said Father Arsenault. “We were able to show the victims, our staff, and our parishioners that we take claims seriously and that we are committed to the safety of children. Through our policies and procedures and our implementation of the PROTECTING GOD’S CHILDREN™ program, we were able to base our response efforts on a tangible program and established action plan.”

“Response to the VIRTUS® program has been excellent. The program has really helped us and given us confidence in a time of tragedy and sadness. And it speaks volumes about our commitment to protecting children. We have been as comfortable as one can be under such circumstances—inviting local and national media to observe our efforts and witness the program in action. Regardless of the level of urgency, implementing child safety programs is too important to ignore—no matter what program you use.”

Father Arsenault’s assessment reminds me of an English proverb that says, “The shortest answer is doing.” Action is imperative during a crisis, and there is no better action than “doing” the best practice standard to protect children.

Jack McCalmon is an attorney specializing in civil rights, a frequent author and presenter on best practices, and former President of THE AGOS GROUP, LLC (AGOS), a national best practices firm and a strategic partner in the VIRTUS® program. Mr. McCalmon has taken a sabbatical from AGOS to assist with the VIRTUS® program. His title is Director of VIRTUS® Programs and Services. Mr. McCalmon presents and speaks on the VIRTUS® program and its best practices protocols to interested archdioceses and dioceses, religious organizations, and others.

To learn more about the VIRTUS® program, its child sexual abuse prevention programs, PROTECTING GOD’S CHILDREN™, and VIRTUS® Online, or to establish your own best practices in your archdiocese or diocese, you can reach Mr. McCalmon via e-mail at or call him toll-free at 1-888-847-8870.

Safe and supportive learning communities
A long-term vision of continuous improvement for catholic schools

By Philip J. Lazarus, Ph.D., NCSP
Florida International University

Picture in your mind’s eye that it is the first day of school. Some children will be going to a new school for the first time. They are eating breakfast and getting ready. Try to imagine what they are thinking:

  • “I am so excited. Now that I’ve learned multiplication I can’t wait to learn long division.”
  • “This will be a good year in history class because I am going to learn about the industrial revolution.”
  • “If I study much harder every day, I know I can do better on the standardized achievement tests.”

I doubt it. Most likely they are thinking:

  • “Will this be a hard year for me?”
  • “Will I know anyone in my class?”
  • “Will I make any new friends?”
  • “Will I like my teachers and will they like me?”
  • “Will the work be too hard for me?”
  • “Will I pass algebra?”

Unfortunately, some other students may be worried:

  • “Will I be safe in this school?”
  • “What will I do if the students pick on me like they did last year on the bus?”
  • “Will I be threatened or bullied or even beaten up?”

These are legitimate concerns that reflect what is actually on students’ minds. Our children have a need for physical and emotional security, for a sense of connection to others, for reassurance that they are capable of learning, and for a sense that they are part of a larger community that prizes and respects every child. Consequently, our schools must be safe and supportive places that nurture and protect all students, every day.

The multiple shootings of the past few years are a major reason the VIRTUS® program has chosen to give considerable attention to school safety. However, within the past year terrorism has shifted our attention to the issue of safety and security for the entire nation. Our students are more anxious and feel more threatened than ever before (see The Age of Anxiety in Children: Implications for Developing Safe Catholic Schools—a two-part series posted on the “My VIRTUS® Library” page of the VIRTUS® program website). Consequently, in light of September 11, educators, parents, community leaders, churches, and all stakeholders must strive even harder to make schools as safe as possible.

The 30 to 40 homicides that occur each year on school grounds capture the headlines and highlight our concern. However, less publicized findings reveal that for one recent year within our schools there were:

  • 4,000 rapes/sexual batteries
  • 7,000 robberies
  • 11,000 attacks/fights with weapons
  • 100,000 acts of vandalism
  • 116,000 thefts or larcenies
  • 188,000 attacks/fights without weapons
  • 300,000 incidents in which teachers were victimized
  • 800,000 guns brought to school

These statistics do not reflect all the non-violent behaviors and the millions of uncounted acts of bullying, harassment, and teasing. For example, 9 percent of students view themselves as chronic victims of bullies and 30 percent of students in grades 6-10 report being directly or indirectly victimized by bullies—or both. It is this type of unacceptable behavior more so than any other that ruins the day for countless students and causes them to feel fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, and alienation. These feelings often go undetected by school personnel, yet they distract students from learning and teachers from teaching. At the national level, 27 percent of teachers report that student misbehavior keeps them from teaching “a fair to great deal of the time.”

As a result of these findings, the Learning First Alliance (which is composed of these organizations: National PTA, National Education Association, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National School Boards Association, plus many others) published Every Child Learning: Safe and Supportive Schools. In this document, they developed an action plan to make schools safe. The central theme is that schools must become safe and supportive learning communities. Each and every word in this phrase—safe, supportive, learning, community—is critical. They note that if schools are not safe, little learning takes place. However, even if schools are safe and orderly—but if they do not strive for high academic achievement or build a sense of community—then learning will be compromised.

The primary point is that there is an essential connection between efforts to improve student achievement and efforts to create safe and supportive school communities. Unfortunately, state legislators and policy makers have been reluctant or slow to recognize this basic fact. For example, in my home state of Florida, students take the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (a high stakes measure to assess basic skills of students). Schools are graded A through F based on the results of their students. Members of the faculty are given financial rewards if their students do well. Results of this assessment also determine if students are promoted to the next grade or retained. However, the Learning First Alliance emphasizes that as a result of this decade- long effort to measure and boost academic achievement, “…insufficient attention is often paid to developing safe and supportive learning communities that help academic achievement flourish.”

The vision of schools as safe and supportive learning communities is a powerful one. It fulfills students’ primary psychological needs for safety, security, belonging, competence, and connection. When students’ basic needs are met, they can become more committed to the values, rules, and ethical tenets of the school. Consequently, this can foster a sense of emotional well-being and improve student success.

Catholic schools have an inherent advantage in this area because of their Christ-centered environment; yet, there is always room for improvement. The VIRTUS® program is founded on a continuous improvement model—a model that applies to schools, churches, and all organizations within the religious community. Our commitment is to provide a regular, ongoing infusion of ideas, best practices, risk control tools, training, and other resources to assist Catholic schools in becoming safe and supportive learning communities and to help create an all-around safer and more productive environment for all of God’s children.

This is a complex task. We will need to develop better methods to assist schools in developing programs and measuring outcomes. Measures should assess such variables as a student’s sense of safety and security, levels of connectedness of every child, opportunities for every child to participate in after-school or extracurricular activities, involvement of school staff, families and community members in the lives of students, as well as student learning.

Now imagine once again that it is the first day of school and students are thinking, “This is going to be a great year. Everyone in school likes me and helps me. I feel safe and supported here. I am going to learn a lot and make a whole bunch of new friends.” Just imagine this vision—Catholic schools as safer and more supportive learning communities.

Philip J. Lazarus, Ph.D., serves as chairperson of the National Emergency Assistance Team (NEAT) of the National Association of School Psychologists. Members of NEAT have led crisis response teams after the tragic school killings in West Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Edinboro, Pennsylvania; Springfield, Oregon; Littleton, Colorado; Flint, Michigan; Lake Worth, Florida; Santee, California; and El Cajon, California. Dr. Lazarus is an associate professor and director of the School Psychology Training Program at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. He is co-editor of the text, “Best Practices in School Crisis Prevention and Intervention.” Dr. Lazarus is facilitator of the experts for the violence prevention component of National Catholic's VIRTUS® program: “Managing the Risk of Violence in Schools, Workplaces and Other Public Places.”

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