Author Archives: ssais

The Civil Rights Lawsuit Against Betsy DeVos’s High School Alma Mater: What It Means For Every Student

by Esther Warkov, Executive Director, SSAIS

There are phone calls a parent never wants to get. We received one such call, informing us that our daughter had been raped on a school field trip. Living through the nightmare of the rape and its aftermath was devastating, but equally traumatic was the fallout we experienced when the school failed to uphold our daughter’s civil rights under Title IX.  Like countless families, we became victims of “institutional betrayal,” as I describe in Why We Need Title IX to Let Her Learn: A Parent’s Perspective. Little did we know our experience would later provide an opportunity to educate the US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, about the violation of Title IX in her own alma mater, Holland Christian School, and to explain why this lawsuit is so important for all students.

As secondary victims of our daughter’s assault, we parents have come full circle: we are empowered advocates, educating families about their rights under Title IX, the civil rights law we knew little about when we needed it the most. Our understanding of Title IX now likely exceeds that of US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. It’s both ironic and telling that parents who were once victims are obliged to call out Betsy DeVos’s alma mater for violating Title IX.  Although we deplore the weak level of Title IX enforcement in both public and private schools, we take satisfaction in the opportunity to use this case as a “teachable moment.”

Today, we announce the lawsuit against Holland Christian School and explain what this means for millions of public and private school students. Learn why in short video The Civil Rights Lawsuit Against Betsy DeVos’s High School Alma Mater. Read the video transcript here.

How to File a Title IX Complaint in K-12 Schools

A Guide for Parents and Guardians

By Dr. Bill Howe with Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS.org)

Dr. Howe was the Connecticut State Title IX coordinator for 17 years. He maintains a website on Title IX.

 

This simple guidance for parents and guardians explains how to file a complaint with your school district regarding sexual harassment, sexual violence, sex discrimination, and other violations of state and federal civil rights laws regarding gender discrimination. Some of this guidance also applies to educational programs (e.g. museum, science center) or private schools, if they receive federal funding from any source (e.g. Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, etc.).  All public and private schools that receive federal funding must follow the federal civil rights law Title IX, which protects students from the impact of sexual harassment and assault on their education.

The following information should not be construed as legal advice.

  1. Make sure that your school or educational program is required to follow state and federal civil rights laws. Under federal law, any educational entity that receives even one dollar of federal financial support must abide by Title IX and other federal civil rights laws. Do not let schools argue that since “they do not receive Title IX money” they do not have to obey the law. For example, schools (public or private) must follow Title IX under these circumstances:

— The school receives public school district funding. Public school funds, state funds, and federal funds are commingled. Therefore, acceptance of public school district funding or state funds is essentially the same as receiving federal funding.

— If any student in your school receives grants, scholarships, or loans through the school district or through the state, that is federal funding.

— If the school receives any state funds, then the school is bound by state civil rights laws, which most likely include anti-discrimination laws such as sex discrimination and sexual harassment.

— The private school receives federal funds, such as Title I, from any number of federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, etc.

To find out if a private school receives federal funding or how to file a complaint if it does, see Title IX and Private Schools.  If your private school is one of several within an organization or diocese and even if only one school accepts federal money, Title IX applies to all schools in the organization or diocese. Learn more.

Students in parochial schools are generally not protected by state and federal civil rights laws if the schools do not accept state or federal funding. Complaints would go to the archdiocese office. However, if the complaint involves sexual assault, it could be a criminal matter that falls under police jurisdiction. Or it could be a child welfare issue, which should then also be reported to the state children welfare agency.

If your private school receives federal funding through federal agencies other than the U.S. Department of Education, such as the Department of Agriculture, it still must follow Title IX.  Learn more.

  1. Upon finding out that a violation as occurred, determine if the child has been physically injured and if so seek medical treatment. If a sexual assault has occurred, consider preserving evidence by immediately following these steps:

* Reassure the child emotionally.

* Gather all facts immediately. Write them down in detail. The chronology (order of events) is important. Ask:

— Where did this take place?

— What time was it?

— Who was the perpetrator? How does the child know the perpetrator?

— Were there any witnesses? Get their names.

— What was the offensive behavior? Why does the child think this occurred?  

— Were there any conversations at the time of the incident? Describe them.

— Where were people positioned? Draw a picture illustrating where the offense occurred.

— Were any adults notified of the incident? Get their names.

  1. Review the school’s policies and procedures regarding Title IX and violence. Title IX requires that schools have written policies and procedures in the student handbook. The Title IX Coordinator’s contact information should appear in the student handbook. If it doesn’t, call the district and find out who the Title IX Coordinator is. [expand
  1. Call the person identified in the student handbook who is responsible for sexual harassment and assault. If a person cannot be reached, contact the school principal. If no one can be reached, leave a voice message and follow it up with an email indicating you have an urgent report of the civil rights violation and possible criminal action.
  1. When you reach the person in charge, make sure you get their name, title and other contact information. Reading from your notes describe exactly what your complaint is. Let the school official know that you believe that this incident is possibly a civil rights and criminal violation. Cite Title IX. Also, if your child is a special needs student, has a disability or may have been targeted because of race, religion, national origin indicate that these are also possible violations. Some federal civil rights in education laws are:

— Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (20 U.S.C. §§ 1681 et seq) prohibits sex discrimination in education and in employment situations that receive federal financial assistance.

— Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in all programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.

— Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination based on disability in all programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.

— Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) governs the equal treatment and education of special education students.

— Matthew Shepard & James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 gives the Justice Department the power to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated violence by providing the Justice Department with jurisdiction over crimes of violence where a perpetrator has selected a victim because of the victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

  1. Write down what the school official says. Ask the school official how they plan to proceed. Get a commitment for a follow-up call. Follow up conversations with a written summary to the school.
  1. Get confirmation from the school official that there will be no retaliation against your child. There should be a statement in the student handbook that says so; it might be helpful to cite the page number. Get a written commitment from the school for a safety plan to ensure that your child will not be at risk during the investigation.
  1. Consider enlisting the help of a victim’s advocate or rape crisis organization to serve as an intermediary. Get confirmation from your school that your child will have permission to leave the classroom and seek the school counselor or other designated adult as needed.
  1. It is the school’s responsibility to notify law enforcement and the child welfare agency, if they deem it appropriate. School staff are mandated reporters and required to report sexual assault. You may also do so yourself.
  1. Allow the school district time to investigate your complaint and reach a conclusion. Often the timelines are in the student handbook. The U.S. Dept. of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) once considered 60 days a reasonable time for a school to complete an investigation, however that guidance has been rescinded. Many feel that this is far too long. A prompt investigation is critical. Law enforcement may ask the school to wait to complete its investigation, but this should not be an unreasonable amount of time.
  1. You may ask for proof that the person conducting the Title IX investigation has been trained in Title IX. Training is a federal requirement (see Cape Cod Community College, OCR Case No. 01-93-2047).
  1. While you notify the school, you also have the right to file a complaint with OCR. OCR generally wants to give the school sufficient time to conduct the investigation, but if they feel that the investigation is not progressing in a timely manner, you may press OCR to act.
  1. You may also file a complaint with the state civil rights commission and the state Department of Education. The state civil rights commission may decline to begin an investigation if OCR has already done so. At the same time, OCR most likely will not act if the state civil rights commission has already begun an investigation. OCR will most likely not act if you have contacted an attorney and begun private litigation. You can file the complaint with OCR within their 180-day limit. They may close the investigation if other agencies are investigating, but they may revisit the complaint once you have exhausted other complaint pathways. Keep in touch with OCR to determine your deadline for resubmitting.
  1. If the school investigates and concludes that there was no violation, ask what the appeal process is for the school district. Sometimes, schools will include a policy on appeals in the student handbook; sometimes they will not. Some schools may not have any appeal process.
  1. In high-profile cases, or in cases in which the alleged perpetrator is a school official, the school may hire a so-called “independent investigator” to conduct investigation. Try to vet this independent investigator to ensure that they are indeed unbiased and have no conflict of interest with the school district. For example, if the “independent investigator” is regularly hired by the district, they might not want to jeopardize future jobs by determining that the district was at fault.
  1. If the perpetrator is a certified teacher or administrator, you may have rights within your state to file a complaint with the state education agency and ask that their teaching credentials be revoked. This is usually done through the state education agency’s legal office.
  1. Even if the local law enforcement agency finds that there was no criminal action, that does not mean that there was no Title IX violation. Title IX is about protecting the student’s education from discrimination based on sex; it does not necessarily seek to determine whether a crime occurred. Similarly, a child welfare agency may find no violation of child welfare laws but there may still be a violation of Title IX. Most states have parallel (similar) state laws to Title IX.
  1. If the school investigation finds that you have no grounds for your complaint, you could proceed with a complaint with OCR or the state civil rights commission but generally only if you can prove that there were procedural errors, such as the person conducting the investigation was not trained in Title IX or that the school failed to follow its stated policies and procedures. At this point, you may want to consult an attorney to consider private litigation.
  1. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”), generally prevents the disclosure of confidential information about other students. However, the U.S. Department of Education has ruled that in Title IX cases, parents have the right to know the outcomes of the investigation and the punishment given to the perpetrator. This is a very contentious issue since schools have been traditionally warned not to disclose any confidential information. Sometimes school districts will disclose your personal information accidentally or as retaliation. If this occurs, collect proof and file a FERPA complaint.
  1. Determine what you want to happen as a result of an investigation. In civil rights terminology the question is “how can we make the victim whole again?” Some things that you may want to consider for your child are:

— An opportunity to retake tests that were missed because of the incident.

— An extension to make up work to receive credit for the class after the end of the term.

— Tutoring for your child to help them make up for lost schooling and lowered grades.

— Payment for summer school to help your child get caught up in school.

— Reimbursement for out-of-pocket medical expenses because of the incident.

— Payment for counseling services for your child. You could ask the same for the perpetrator.

— You may ask for a safety plan to ensure that the perpetrator will not have any contact or share classes with your child. This may not be possible in small schools, but the perpetrator can be made to take coursework online or at another school.

— Protection against retaliation.

In addition, you could request that:

— The Title IX Coordinator receive training or advanced training.

— All faculty and staff be trained in Title IX, other civil rights laws, policies and procedures.

— All students receive additional lessons in proper school conduct, specifically in sexual harassment.

— All faculty and staff be trained by professionals to take complaints of sexual harassment and assault compassionately and effectively.

— The district review and update school policies, the employee handbook, and the student handbook.

  1. Filing Title IX complaints with other federal agencies. OCR only handles Title IX complaints where schools have received federal funds through the U.S. Department of Education. If your private school receives money from another federal agency, such as the Department of Agriculture, file the complaint through that agency. Follow these instructions.

To work in partnership with your school district to improve Title IX Compliance, see Parents: You Can Become the Agent of Change for Title IX Policies in Your Schools.

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Title IX and Private K-12 Schools

by Christine Garner, with input from Bill Howe and SSAIS.

This FAQ is about Title IX and private K-12 schools. It is not intended as definitive legal advice. We recommend that you contact an attorney to review your specific situation. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) continues to change its guidance. This information is based upon guidance provided prior to March 10, 2018.

Is a private K-12 school required to comply with Title IX?

Title IX states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”  If a private school receives any federal financial assistance then it must comply with Title IX, unless the school has a legitimate religious exemption (see below).

The courts have ruled that even if one department of a school receives federal financial assistance, the entire school must abide by Title IX.  If a private school is part of an entity with more than one school, then all schools within the entity must adhere to Title IX, even if only one of the entity’s schools receives federal financial assistance.

Does a private religious school have to comply with Title IX?

If a private religious school accepts federal financial assistance, then it is required to comply with Title IX. A religious school can claim an exemption from Title IX requirements that it believes would be inconsistent with its religious tenets. Religious schools may apply to the Department of Education for exemptions to Title IX requirements, but a school is not required to file a written claim for an exemption to be valid.  The school can raise the religious exemption in response to a Title IX complaint.

The most common religious exemptions apply to sports, pregnant students, or LGTBQ rights. It is difficult to envision a valid religious tenet that would exempt a school from having to address sexual harassment or sexual assault.  If a religious school claims an exemption, you could still file a complaint, and OCR will decide if the exemption is valid.

What qualifies as federal financial assistance?

The Department of Justice (DoJ) defines federal financial assistance as “the award or grant of money.” The DoJ definition continues:

However, federal financial assistance may also be in nonmonetary form… [F]ederal financial assistance may include the use or rent of federal land or property at below market value, federal training, a loan of federal personnel, subsidies, and other arrangements with the intention of providing assistance. Federal financial assistance does not encompass contracts of guarantee or insurance by the federal government. It is also important to remember that not only must an entity receive federal financial assistance to be subject to Title IX, but the entity also must receive federal assistance at the time of the alleged discriminatory act(s) except for assistance provided in the form of real or personal property. In this situation, the recipient is subject to Title IX for as long as it uses the property.

Private K-12 schools usually receive financial assistance from the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, or the Department of Health and Human Services.  Private schools might also receive financial assistance from other federal agencies.

If a student or teacher at a private school receives Title I or special education services from a public school, does that mean the private school is a recipient of federal financial assistance?

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) require public school districts to provide eligible students with special education resources and also to provide “equitable services” to eligible children in private schools. If a private school student or teacher receives “equitable services” from a public school, that does not mean that the private school is a recipient of federal financial assistance.  Department of Education policy does not consider services provided to private school students or teachers under ESEA Title I or IDEA as federal funds given to the school.

How do you know whether your private school receives federal financial assistance?

First, ask the private school administration if they receive federal financial assistance. The school should know because they are required to sign an Assurance of Compliance prior to receiving the funds. The assurance of compliance states only that the school “assures” the federal agency that the school complies with Title IX and the other federal civil rights laws. The signed assurance of compliance does not mean the federal agency has audited to see if the school is truly in compliance.

If the school refuses to answer or you do not trust their answer, you can search USAspending.gov (see instructions below) or the Federal Audit Clearinghouse. These databases show the federal financial award amount and the agency that provided the money. Even if the school does not appear in one of these databases, it still might receive federal financial assistance.

If you cannot verify whether your private school receives federal financial assistance, you can still file a Title IX complaint with OCR, and they will determine if the school receives funds from the Department of Education. It’s best to consult with an attorney first to determine the best course of action because you can lose valuable time waiting for a determination from OCR.

If my private school does receive federal financial assistance, how do I a file complaint under Title IX?

If you are not able to resolve your complaint with the private school, you can file a lawsuit or file a complaint through the civil rights department of the federal agency that provided the school with financial assistance. The three most common sources of federal financial assistance to private K-12 schools are the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, and Department of Health and Human Services.

Here are the links to file complaints:

OCR sets the standard for review of a Title IX complaint, even if another federal agency is processing that complaint. If a private school receives funds from more than one federal agency, you only need file a complaint with one agency. It’s preferable to file a complaint through the Department of Education if your school receives funds from the Department of Education.

When must I file my Title IX complaint?

You must file a Title IX complaint within 180 days of the latest occurrence of the discrimination.  If you filed a complaint through your school’s grievance process and you feel your Title IX rights were violated, you can file a complaint with OCR within 60 days after the last act in the school’s grievance process. OCR sometimes grants a waiver of the 180-day filing period, but it’s best to submit your complaint within that time frame. Because discrimination can be ongoing, discuss your filing deadline with an attorney as soon as you discover the discrimination.

What if my private school isn’t required to comply with Title IX?

You do not need to rely only on Title IX to prove sexual harassment and sexual assault are wrong. Even if your private school is not required to comply with Title IX, you can still demand that it address these issues and live up to Title IX standards. If a student is a victim of sexual assault at a private school, the action is still wrong and the school should respond to protect and help the victim. Depending on the facts, a private school might be liable for breach of contract, negligent supervision, or some other legal theory that would be best discussed with an attorney.

As noted in the Assurance of Compliance, schools must also comply with other civil rights laws and an incident could violate more than one law. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. Discrimination based upon disability is prohibited by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Age discrimination is prohibited by the Age Discrimination Act of 1975.

Most states have their own anti-bullying laws. These statutes define bullying in different ways. Check with an attorney about whether a private school must comply with anti-bullying laws in your state.

In conclusion, if a student has been a victim of sexual harassment, do not give up. You have the right to demand protection and help from your private school.

Legal disclaimer



Instructions on how to conduct a search on the USA Spending website:

  1. Browse to USAspending.gov advanced search webpage.
  2. On the left side, in the Filters box, under Time Period, select All Fiscal Years.
  3. In the Filters box, click Award Type, and select all of the categories (Contracts, Grants, Direct Payments, Loans, and Other).
  4. In the Filters box, click Recipient, and in the Recipient Name search box, enter the name of the school or portion of the name, and then click the search icon (magnifying glass).
  5. Scroll to the top or to the bottom of the Filters box, and then click Submit Search.
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SSAIS raises awareness of the detrimental effects on students of DeVos Title IX guidance rescission

In a strongly worded letter to Department of Education Secretary Betsy Devos, the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education (NCWGE) opposed “any effort by this administration to repeal, replace, or modify any of Title IX’s regulations or guidance documents” that were open for public comment.

Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS.org), one of 30 national NCWGE member organizations, is spearheading awareness of the potential negative effects on K-12 students of rescinding Title IX-related guidance and any weakening of the Department’s oversight and enforcement role.

The NCWGE is a national nonprofit that educates the public about issues concerning equal rights for women and girls in education. SSAIS contributed to the recent NCWGE publication Title IX at 45: Advancing Opportunity through Equity in Education.

 

We Can’t Wait: Solutions to K-12 Sexual Harassment and Assault

Originally appeared in the Huffington Post

Sexual harassment and assault are forms of sex discrimination and they occur at alarming rates in K-12 schools. Recent reports like “Hidden horror of school sex assaults revealed by AP” and “Ending Sexual Harassment and Assault: Effective Measures Protect All Students” confirm just how rampant these problems are. The attention afforded to transgender students’ rights should also prompt us to broaden our understanding of sex discrimination, a serious problem for all students. Students’ civil rights are violated daily because schools are failing to fulfill their responsibilities under Title IX, a federal civil rights law.

Researchers, national gender equity organizations, and the CDC have provided sufficient data to demonstrate how sexual harassment and assault negatively impact K-12 students. Yet the public remains in the dark because these violations are under-reported by students, who have been forced to normalize sexual harassment, and by schools guarding their reputations. It’s not surprising that national studies show a glaring discrepancy between the small number of schools reporting incidents of sexual harassment and the large number of students saying they experience it.

Sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault are community problems. Research shows that the majority of teenage students have been affected by peer sexual harassment but rarely seek help. Because schools frequently discount or dismiss reports of sexual harassment or assault, students are discouraged from reporting; many of these victims become perpetrators of sexual harassment. By failing to properly address sexual harassment, schools foster a climate where sexual harassment and assault occur. Sexual violence on college campuses and sexual harassment in the workplace occur because students are afforded ample opportunity to practice these behaviors in their formative years.

Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs. But few families understand the broad protections the law affords beyond ensuring equal athletic opportunities. After our tenth grader was raped on a high school field trip, we also had no idea that Title IX required the school to take specific actions. The nightmare of sexual assault was exacerbated by the school’s failure to implement Title IX. By the time we learned of our daughter’s rights it was too late for the required prompt and equitable investigation; by then the school district had acquired “alternate facts.” Betrayed by our school, we brought a US Department of Education investigation to the Seattle school district. Using the national attention our case received, we spearheaded a national movement to educate the public about sex discrimination in K-12 schools. From our work with families across the country and national gender equity organizations, we cannot overemphasize the urgent need for Title IX compliance.

With the Trump administration and Department of Education leadership, we cannot expect vigorous Title IX enforcement from the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Since we can’t count on federal oversight we must compel compliance through community engagement. The solution requires a massive grass roots education effort to inform families, schools, and local organizations about schools’ responsibilities, students’ Title IX rights, and recourses when schools fail, we told the Washington Post last year.

To fill this need, the national nonprofit Stop Sexual Assault in Schools created comprehensive free education for the K-12 audience, Sexual Harassment: Not in Our School! The streaming video and action plan model a collaborative effort where students work alongside parents and community organizations to create Title IX compliant schools. It follows a high school gender equity club strategizing to address sex discrimination, interviewing nationally recognized education, legal, and LGBTQ experts, and learning from counselors, advocates, parents, and peers. In one enlightening scenario, students watch San Francisco Unified’s Title IX Coordinator, attorney Keasara Williams, properly address a parent-actor’s complaint—an important model for Coordinators who remain largely untrained. One student concludes that, “When we make change at school, we’re changing society too.”

When the school and local community implement the recommended actions, they will reduce the traumatic effects of sexual harassment and assault, ensure better outcomes for students, and address behaviors that lead to sexual assault on college campuses and sexual harassment in the workplace. Sex discrimination, in its many manifestations, is the 21st century civil rights issue for students. In these uncertain times, we must arm communities with Title IX education now.

Related:

With Trump’s Title IX stance unknown, video aims to educate about sexual harassment at school

Film takes aim at national K-12 sexual assault, student rights

Sexual Assault: A 21st Century Civil Rights Issue

Sexual violence isn’t just a college problem. It happens in K-12 schools, too.

Read more

What You Missed at the “It Happened Here” Screening on USF Campus

by Minnah Stein, founder of EMPOWERU

Last night I attended the screening of It Happened Here on the University of South Florida (USF) campus. I was so excited to meet Marjorie Schwartz Nielsen (the documentary’s producer) and Kylie Angell (one of the film’s featured activists) so I could thank them in person for their amazing work. I did, and it felt pretty good.

I’ve shown the documentary to over 1,500 high school students in my county, and I know first-hand how impactful it is, how beneficial it is in starting this conversation, and how effective it is at educating students about the facts of sexual assault and their Title IX rights. Far from intimidating students, It Happened Here makes students feel empowered and hopeful. I could actually feel that in the audience at my screenings and in the theatre at USF last night.Read more

I was so happy to see a very large turn out of students – many of whom were boys. Yes! And, Crystal Coombes, Senior Deputy Title IX Coordinator for USF, was everything a college student could want in a Title IX coordinator. She made me hopeful colleges are finally starting to get it right. USF certainly seems to be on the right track.

For those of you who would also love the opportunity to meet Marjorie and Kylie, let me report that they are both powerful and kind women, and I wish you could meet them too. They truly care about this cause and want to crush it.

If you do too, join the fight! Host a screening of It Happened Here at your school. You can also get involved with Stop Sexual Assault In Schools and host a screening of their free educational video “Sexual Assault: Not At Our School!” that is set to be released soon.

Here are some of my favorite photos from the night. A HUGE thank you to Renee Hangartner, President of the Clinical Psychological Association at USF, for making the screening possible. She’s another amazing woman I had the pleasure of meeting last night!

Me being silly.

Kylie Angell, Minnah Stein, and Marjorie Schwartz Nielsen ready for the screening.

Marjorie Schwartz Nielsen, Kylie Angell, and Crystal Coombes answering audience questions.

Source: What You Missed at the It Happened Here Screening on USF Campus

 

Should Parents Know When Their K-12 School is Under Federal Investigation For Mishandling Sexual Assault?

By SSAIS Co-founder and Executive Director Esther Warkov, Ph.D
Originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

cautionU.S. Department of Education (Office for Civil Rights) investigations of K-12 schools for mishandling reported sexual assault are rapidly rising, yet parents rarely know when their child’s school is under investigation. That’s because school districts have little incentive to disclose this information. Recently the media revealed that California’s second largest school district, San Diego Unified, had been under federal scrutiny for violating Title IX since December 2014. A follow-up report entitled “Should San Diego, Carlsbad Schools Have Told Parents About Sex-Assault Investigations?” prompted SSAIS.org to bring this topic to a wider audience.

The question has provoked commentary from national education equity organizations and advocates who say that school districts should inform parents about federal investigations. Senior Vice President for Program at the National Women Law Center, Fatima Goss Graves tweeted: “It’s unfortunate if they [San Diego Unified] did not engage the parent community. Parents and students are key parts of the solution.”

In a report aired on KPBS radio, Title IX expert Jules Irvin-Rooney said, “San Diego Unified and other school districts should see these federal investigations as an opportunity to teach parents and students about Title IX, the anti-discrimination law that requires school districts to protect students at K-12 schools from sexual violence and sexual harassment. At the very least . . . districts should tell their communities that they are the subject of a federal investigation and that they are cooperating with authorities.”

Unfortunately, there are few media reports that inform the public about K-12 sexual assault investigations by the U.S. Department of Education. The report on the investigation of San Diego unified is particularly illuminating for its inclusion of the parents’ complaint and OCR’s resolution letter spelling out its findings.

The parents’ complaint recounted a series of attempts to hold the district accountable after their kindergarten son was sexually assaulted in the bathroom. The OCR resolution letter reveals how the district claimed its zero tolerance for sexual harassment did not apply to elementary schools “because elementary students do not have the relevant mental state for engaging in sexually harassing behavior.” Reports state that the district fired its own investigator, whitewashed the investigation report, blamed other young victims, and supported the principal who had failed to appropriately respond.

San Diego Unified is not an isolated case. In January, The Washington Post reported on an emerging epidemic of civil rights violations in “Sexual violence isn’t just a college problem. It happens in K-12 schools, too.” To raise awareness about students’ rights under Title IX, SSAIS.org spotlights the efforts of education advocates across the country. Community efforts in San Diego and Berkeley, CA, among other locations, demonstrate how advocates must form grassroots movements to address sexual harassment and assault in their own school districts until schools are compelled to become Title IX compliant.

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Parents and Educators Take on Sexual Assault in California’s Second Largest School District

By SSAIS Co-founder and Executive Director Esther Warkov, Ph.D

To raise awareness about students’ rights under Title IX, SSAIS.org spotlights the efforts of education advocates across the country. Earlier we looked at education activists in Berkeley, CA. Here we look at community activism in California’s second largest school district, San Diego Unified.

SD Unified Student Abuse ReportSan Diego Unified School District was recently the subject of media reports describing how the district’s mishandling of sexual assaults warranted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education (Office for Civil Rights). According to reporter Chris Young who broke the story, the federal investigation occurred after the school failed to appropriately respond to a sexual assault report involving a kindergarten boy in the bathroom. In their complaint, the victim’s parents recounted a series of obstacles that illustrate how school districts avoid following prescribed complaint pathways.

To excuse the district’s failures, the San Diego district claimed that its zero tolerance for sexual harassment did not apply to elementary schools “because elementary students do not have the relevant mental state for engaging in sexually harassing behavior.” Young’s report is exemplary for its inclusion of the OCR resolution letter and links to important background information.

Concerned San Diego educator and parent advocates have created the website District Deeds: Investigating San Diego Unified School District. The website includes media reports, documents illustrating violations of students, and a map showing the schools where assaults occurred. “Despite the large number of assaults on the map, there are considerably more because school police do not report crimes on the campuses, as required by California state laws,” said one educator-advocate, Judy Neufeld-Fernandez.

Undisclosed sexual harassment and violence at San Diego Unified illustrates a serious problem that affects students nationwide. According to Neufeld-Fernandez, “a culture of secrecy in San Diego Unified School District has led to the sexual abuse of students. The betrayal begins with the public’s trust that our schools are safe: the public is unaware that schools are fertile ground for sexual predators. In 2004, the US Department of Education published data stating that nearly 10% of students surveyed report being the victim of sexual molestation at school. Yet only 11% of educators say they would report sex abuse of children. These two statistics are a galvanizing wake-up call for parents. Schools are failing to protect kids and parents must step up their own means of protection. We hear constantly of children in the care of adults being preyed upon in the news. Yet, for each publicized incident, many incidents are suppressed and parents are kept in the dark.”

Social worker and San Diego parent Lucy Wuellner recommends that to “shatter the culture of silence, districts must clearly define the reporting process, include reporting laws and definitions of abuse (adult and peer) in their literature and on their websites. And just as important, teacher and school administrators must fulfill their responsibility as mandatory reporters. A mandated reporter’s responsibility is to report, not to convict. Failure to report should be met with severe consequences e.g. suspension or dismissal.”

San Diego advocates want their district to provide a spectrum of training that ranges from implementing federal safeguards like Title IX to local procedures. Neufeld-Fernandez is concerned that “parents’ pleas to implement low-cost child protection measures were ignored,” and “efforts to introduce and implement a variety of training measures were met with a tepid response. The SDUSD actively dismissed programs found effective elsewhere such as Florida’s Department of Education’s Educator Misconduct program.”

San Diego advocates believe that their district’s pervasive problems must be remedied through a public awareness campaign to bring about culture change. They want an independent agency for investigations of abuse in schools, clarification for teachers and administrators about how organizations like Child Protective Services, District Attorney, San Diego Police and San Diego Unified School Police fit into the constellation of resources serving students. According to Lucy Wuellner, “this will result in a continuum of support rather than cases falling through the agency cracks.” She believes that “turning the culture of silence into a culture of vigilance” (in the words of Charles Wilson, Director of the Chadwick Center for Children and Families) needs to be the community’s war-cry.

The culture of vigilance must extend nationwide. That’s why Stop Sexual Assault in Schools received funding from the American Association of University Women to educate families about students’ right to an education free from sexual harassment, violence, and gender based discrimination under Title IX. Until schools have an incentive to comply with Title IX, students, families, and stakeholders must be proactively engaged to safeguard students’ rights. By so doing, we improve outcomes for K-12 students while addressing the breeding ground for college sexual assault.

Related Reports

Should San Diego, Carlsbad Schools Have Told Parents About Sex-Assault Investigations?

Federal Sex-Assault Investigation Leads To SD Unified Reform; Carlsbad Inquiry Ongoing

Combatting the Epidemic of K-12 Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence

What the White House Asked Us About K-12 Sexual Violence

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What the White House Asked Us About K-12 Sexual Violence

By SSAIS Co-founder and Executive Director Esther Warkov, Ph.D

Originally appeared in the Huffington Post.
whitehouseThe White House VP’s office last month invited four organizations to participate in a discussion of K-12 sexual violence. Everyone present (Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, the American Association of University Women, the National Women’s Law Center, Girls Inc., and the VP’s office) readily acknowledged the gravity of K-12 sexual violence. Yet policymakers and the public remain in the dark. It wasn’t enough that the CDC declared adolescent sexual violence a serious health threat back in 2012. Policymakers—along with the public—haven’t connected the dots: sexual harassment and violence are not isolated events. No, sexual harassment and violence are devastating students’ lives on a daily basis across the country, even in the “best” schools. Students have come to view sexual harassment as normative, and even take blame for sexual assault. Schools routinely downplay or deny reports of sexual misconduct so that students have no incentive to report. Yet, even with limited reporting, the word is slowly getting out. Perhaps it will soon dawn on policymakers—and the public—that college campus assault has its origins in the K-12 breeding ground. 

A significant challenge is how to address this unspeakable topic, one which lawmakers and parents are disinclined to face. The White House representative wondered how K-12 sexual violence could be broached and what research exists to support its impact on students’ education. Whether or not sufficient research has been conducted—or can be conducted—shouldn’t prevent the government from remedying this epidemic: everyone in the field knows that sexual violence is taking down students’ lives at an alarming rate. We also know that schools are notoriously non-compliant with Title IX, a federal civil rights law that guarantees an equal education free from sexual harassment and sexual violence. Schools have no motivation to become Title IX compliant since the penalty for noncompliance—withholding federal funds—is not applied. It will take a plethora of lawsuits alongside public outcry to incentivize schools to protect K-12 students from sexual harassment and violence.

While policymakers turn a blind eye on K-12 sexual violence and schools suppress reports of sexual violence, the media must expose this epidemic. Although we’ve seen reports on a few egregious cases of sexual violence, the media has failed to inform the public about the everyday violations that destroy students’ educations and lives. The Washington Post recently reported on the magnitude of K-12 sexual violence and profiled the SSAIS movement to address it. Yet there are countless cases that should be in the news on a daily basis. Consider, for example, media apathy to a press release concerning multiple rapes in an Indiana school district that earned it a federal investigation: not a single news outlet produced an in-depth report on this alarming case. It’s critically important that the media report — even if only from the victim’s perspective — when other parties refuse to cooperate. These brave K-12 survivors and families deserve the opportunity to educate the public just as college students have raised our awareness of campus sexual violence. We are in the dark ages when it comes to the epidemic of K-12 sexual violence. It is the civil rights issue of today’s youth.

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Combating the Epidemic of K-12 Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence

By SSAIS Co-founder and Executive Director Esther Warkov, Ph.D

kyleThere’s a hidden epidemic of sexual harassment and sexual violence in our K-12 schools. Like countless families, we didn’t know about this threat until our tenth grader was raped on a school fieldtrip in 2012. In that year, the CDC declared sexual violence a serious health concern for adolescents. Although journalists have reported on the most glaring cases of sexual violence, no one was talking about pervasive sexual harassment/assault in our schools and its relationship to college sexual violence. So we reached out to The Washington Post’s national education reporter Emma Brown who addressed the epidemic in a front page report “Sexual violence isn’t just a college problem. It happens in K-12 schools, too” and profiled the work of our nonprofit (SSAIS.org). Huff Post Senior Education reporter Tyler Kingkade also reported on an emerging movement to address K-12 sexual violence, noting that SSAIS is “putting school districts everywhere on notice: drop the ball when a student reports a sexual assault, and [they’ll] expose it to the world.” 

Students are sick of sexual harassment, unwelcome touching, and sexual assault, which infect what should be a safe learning environment. Because sexual harassment has become normative, schools are in crisis. Sex-based harassment causes real emotional, psychological, and economic damage to students. Victims are often forced to attend classes with perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence. Feeling uncomfortable and unsafe at school correlates with declining academic performance, skipping school, and dropping out. Many students never “get over it;” they commit suicide.

Although schools are required under Title IX to proactively address sexual harassment and violence at school, they rarely do. That’s why SSAIS is spearheading a national movement to educate students about their rights and recourses which include filing complaints with the U.S. Department of Education and taking action through an Activism Toolkit. We also encourage students, families, educators, and community stakeholders to explore one simple procedure that prompts school districts to become Title IX compliant.

To raise awareness on how families can combat sexual harassment and violence in schools, SSAIS is spotlighting the exemplary activism of Berkeley High School Stop Harassing (BHSSH). We’re impressed by their student campaign to change the culture around sexual harassment as they illuminate “the many and varied awful incidents students are enduring due to unresponsive and indifferent school board and administration practices in the face of their obligations under Title IX to provide a safe learning environment,” BHSSH Adult Advisor, Heidi Goldstein summarized. Like schools across the country, “Sadly, the School Board, BUSD Administration, and the BHS Site Administration are continuing to treat issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence as a series of isolated events, rather than the cultural problem that they really are. We are asking these governing bodies for comprehensive student and staff training on these topics and a simplified complaint process, one that students know how to and feel comfortable using,” according to the BHSSH Steering Committee.

Among the group’s many activities is their Story-A-Day campaign in which school board directors receive a daily account of sexual harassment. “As students continue to feel unsafe coming forward when they are hurt, we decided to give them a voice by allowing them to send us their anonymous stories through cards collected in classrooms, Instagram, and the BHS Stop Harassing website.” SSAIS recommends perusing the BHSSH website and viewing their video.

SSAIS asked Heidi Goldstein to provide suggestions for parents of sexually harassed and assaulted students. “First and foremost, stand by your student and get them the help they want to feel safe at school and reassured that you’ve got their back. Understand that school districts approach incidents of sexual harassment, battery or assault as risk management problems; they will do what they can to minimize their exposure and liability and make your problem go away. Your student’s needs are secondary to this in their schema.” SSAIS has seen this play out in countless school districts.

Next, “After an incident parents need to connect immediately with the school site administrator — typically the Principal — and the school district Compliance Officer or Title IX Coordinator to determine next steps. If the school district doesn’t have a Compliance Officer, Title IX Coordinator or other employee explicitly tasked with these responsibilities, parents should insist on a meeting as soon as possible with the Superintendent, who is ultimately accountable for these issues.” SSAIS advises that parents take note if the Superintendent or Title IX officer abdicates responsibility to the general counsel; this is a prohibited conflict, as occurred in our family’s case. Heidi continues:

Parents should be very clear on the remedy they want for their student (example: require the harasser or assailant to transfer out of their student’s class to minimize further exposure) and put this in writing using the district’s formal reporting or complaint processes, which typically require the district to respond to you in writing at regular intervals on their progress and findings. It is often challenging to make the school district step up to its responsibilities so frequent follow up and repetition of your expectations is critical to making progress, as is your ability to push hard on issues of disclosure.

To learn more about what parents can expect when advocating for their students’ rights, how schools minimize and dismiss complaints, and how students are enriched through such activism, read the full interview with Heidi Goldstein.

As families and equity advocates like BHSSH hold schools accountable to Title IX, they must “ensure that Title IX Coordinators exist and that they fulfill their gender equity leadership role,” Feminist Majority Foundation’s Education Equity director Dr. Sue Klein reminds us. While every school district is required to have a Title IX coordinator, finding that person can require several steps. She encourages families and equity advocates to proactively identify Title IX coordinators and hire/train them, when needed. She also recommends “meeting with the Title IX Coordinators and making sure that they have copies of the OCR guidance and that they develop specific accountability and action plans to identify and remediate sex discrimination in their school. They should insure the collection and analysis of accountability information disaggregated by sex, race, and other pertinent characteristics needed to assure equity.” Schools’ websites must have all relevant information concerning Title IX compliance, as she details here. Dr. Klein insightfully recommends that Title IX coordinators be invited to present their work to community and parent organizations, thereby spotlighting their responsibilities.

If sexual harassment and assault are to be remedied, student, parent, and community involvement is essential. Dr. Klein places importance on forming advisory groups that regularly meet with Title IX Coordinators to address and prevent sex discrimination. “The advisory groups may be established for multiple schools and should include relevant gender equity experts as well as equity advocates within the schools such as union representatives or supportive school board members.” And she recommends “making full use of national gender equity organizations’ websites including the members of the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education and SSAIS.org” to inform students of their rights and recourses.

The time is here to both improve outcomes for K-12 students and address the breeding ground for college sexual assault. As Fatima Goss Graves, Senior VP of Program at the National Women’s Law Center, wrote in her inaugural post for the SSAIS website: “If we do not bring a serious focus to the problem of sexual harassment and assault in elementary and secondary schools, it will be nearly impossible to make real progress at any other level of education. Too often the story of sexual violence in K-12 schools shows administrators who are poorly informed about their Title IX obligations or avoid taking the necessary steps required by Title IX to end and prevent future harassment.”

Join us and support a comprehensive education program to eradicate sexual harassment and sexual violence in K-12 schools!

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