Category Archives: SSAIS Blog

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:

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.

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

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.

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. Read More

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!

These families are saying “NO” to sexual harassment and assault in school: Berkeley High School Stop Harassing

bhsstopharassingStudents are sick of sexual harassment, unwelcome touching, and sexual assault that infect what should be a safe learning environment. 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. Some 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 address K-12 sexual violence by raising awareness, helping families file complaints with the U.S. Department of Education, and encouraging activism through its Activism Toolkit.

SSAIS has been following the exemplary activism of Berkeley High School Stop Harassing (BHSSH) group since December 2014 and has spotlighted their work. Here’s a great introductory video capturing the group’s award-winning efforts.  This month, BHSSH has enacted a Story-A- Day campaign in which school board directors receive a daily account of sexual harassment. We reached out to BHSSH Adult Advisor, Heidi Goldstein, to share her experience for the benefit of students nationwide.

SSAIS:  Heidi, can you provide a brief overview of the organization?

Heidi:  BHS Stop Harassing (BHSSH) is a student-led grass roots movement that originated in Berkeley, CA in the autumn of 2014 due to student outrage over a Berkeley High School administrator’s remarks at multiple back-to-school assemblies that equated how girls dressed with how they could expect to be treated with respect to sexual harassment.

BHSSH started as a handful of energized students sitting around a kitchen table talking about the culture of harassment at their high school.  It has evolved to become an organization (not a school club) that meets regularly to pursue advocacy and actions to change the culture of sexual violence and harassment in the Berkeley Unified School District.  In June 2015 BHSSH was recognized by the national Title IX advocacy organization, Equal Rights Advocates, at their annual gala as their 2015 “Champions of Justice.”  Earlier this year the group was honored with a prize and stipend from the Futures Without Violence Respect Challenge Grant. BHSSH can be found on our website  Instagram and Facebook

SSAIS:  What can parents do when students are sexually harassed at school?

Heidi:  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.

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: In our district, an inadequately trained Title IX Coordinator abdicated responsibility to the school district’s attorney, a clearly prohibited conflict. What else can families expect?

Heidi: Some school districts immediately bring their attorney into the mix.  You can’t prevent this and you may not have the resources, or wish, to hire an attorney to represent you, but you can insist that district staff participate in a meeting along with their attorney and that they explain to you — and provide in writing — how their policy applies to the incident and how the incident will be investigated and documented.  They should also describe how and when this information will be communicated to you and how decisions will be made regarding your student’s ongoing safety at school.  You will also want to know about any processes in place to appeal decisions.  They should provide to you the Board Policy (BP) and companion Administrative Regulation (AR) that govern such incidents.

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.

Finally, using social media, neighborhood email lists, word of mouth, or PTA contacts,  parents should seek out others who have been through this same circumstance.  These folks understand what you are going through and can offer good support; their advice is valuable and may help you to avoid delays and unsatisfactory outcomes.

SSAIS: What are some of the problems families face when holding schools accountable?

Heidi:  Both schools and school districts have the opportunity to be accountable – or not – when an incident occurs. Typically it is the policies and practices defined by the school district that drive the activities of the administrative staff at the school where the incident occurred.  Often school staff work in consultation with school district staff when an incident occurs.  Whether by design or due to other factors, such as lack of staff training, the biggest accountability problem by far is lack of follow-up to an incident.

This can manifest as a lack of clarity as to who is “in charge” of responding to the incident, handling the investigation, making decisions around safety or discipline, or communicating with parents/students about progress and findings.  Sometimes this presents as a constantly changing cast of characters who are charged with responding or making decision.  Sometimes the point of contact assigned to the parents/students is a school district representative who cannot make decisions and who is not involved in the investigation or resolution of the incident. All these approaches put an excessive burden on parents/students to get clear information about what is happening.

Another problem is getting clear information about the school’s investigation of an incident as administrators often cite privacy laws – specifically FERPA (for students) and union covenants (for staff) – as the basis for not sharing any information.  It is worth pushing back hard on this as school districts generally take a conservative stance on these issues but it is possible to share many elements of the findings without direct violation of privacy protections.  A frequent and unfortunate fall back for school districts to avoid accountability is to claim that their attorneys have told them they cannot share “privileged” information.  This stance leaves complaining parents little choice but to pursue public records disclosure requests, also an undue burden.

Some schools or school districts skirt accountability by using “railroading” tactics such as telling complaining parents or students that the matter is being handled and there is no further need for their involvement – and then ceasing all activity around the incident.  A truly unfortunate practice I have personally experienced is “jamming,” where a decision to be enacted on the following Monday was communicated to me via email just at the close of business on the prior Friday afternoon, leaving limited options to get in touch with authorized school district personnel to appeal the decision.

SSAIS: Yes, a school district will often shirk its responsibility to conduct a prompt independent inquiry by saying that “law enforcement is investigating,” even though Title IX specifies that schools must investigate concurrently.  Often schools wrongly claim they have no further responsibility because the perpetrator wasn’t prosecuted. Title IX is very clear that schools must take specific steps to investigate and remedy the hostile environment.

What are other ways you’ve seen a school district minimize or dismiss complaints?

Heidi: There are school districts that rely on the fact that parents are too busy with their jobs or other responsibilities, or are unable to take time off to follow up on incidents; and that these parents/students lack knowledge of their rights or the skills (including basic communication skills for immigrant parents and students whose first language is not English) to insist on school district accountability.   Along with this is a practice of schools leveraging, where they have the opportunity, cultural traditions that hesitate to challenge authority when a decision is communicated, even if the affected parties disagree with it.  This is particularly true of first generation immigrant families and those with undocumented family members.

SSAIS: We also see a similar problem in small communities where the perpetrator’s family is involved in the school administration, athletics, or law enforcement. Those who bring their complaints forward do so at considerable peril. The work of BHSSH provides solidarity and inspiration to those who are isolated after reporting their assaults.

How have the BHSSH students benefitted from their advocacy efforts?

Heidi: The students of BHSSH have benefited from exposure to a wide range of experiences and opportunities that will forever influence their understanding of their ability to make a difference in the world.  They are well respected by their peers and teachers for both their advocacy work and their knowledge of the universe of issues around sexual harassment.

Through their work they have met with national players in the fight for equity on college campuses as well as with researchers in academia and the not-for-profit social services sphere.  They have briefed local leaders (including the Berkeley Commissions on the Status of Women, and Peace and Justice) on the issues and the nature of their advocacy work and have both attended and presented at conferences.  They regularly speak before the Berkeley School District Board of Directors and give interviews to radio, television and print media outlets.  They have published their own writings about sexual harassment advocacy and have made multiple videos on the topic.

BHSSH students have hands-on experience in developing and running campaigns to educate and give voice to student experiences that would otherwise be unheard.  They are about to publish a set of trauma-informed  tools to facilitate student reports of harassment, replacing the school district’s overly complicated and opaque materials.  These experiences and activities have deepened their empathy for others in highly charged and complicated circumstances and have enabled them to construct a nuanced understanding of how change is made.  It is my privilege to serve as an adult advisor to this next generation of leaders and thinkers in this sphere of social activism.

Read More

Check out the SSAIS Get Involved and Activism Toolkit pages to find an activity that’s right for you.

SSAIS co-founder: As the Mother of a Rape Victim I Know Consent Education Is Not Enough

Originally appeared in The Huffington Post

Pen and check boxes

Sure, we’re all about consent. That’s because we know–first hand–the indelible nightmare of sexual assault. Maybe if the tenth grade football player who raped our daughter on a high school field trip had consent education he might have learned that  “Stop” means no and only an enthusiastic “Yes” means yes. Or maybe not. He’d already been suspended for having intercourse in the bushes on the lunch break in 8th grade, according to a public investigation report. Maybe our daughter’s rapist needed consent education in middle school. His Facebook page included posts to “Slap that bitch hard,” among other unmentionable recommendations. He even admitted to the school’s investigators that while our daughter told him multiple times to stop, “I did not pay attention to her that much.”

Consent education is being touted as the solution to the epidemic of sexual assault in our K-12 schools. Can we please stop and think?  Why do we need consent education? If we respect our friends or our students, we don’t treat them like objects for our own gratification. Maybe we really should be educating students about the underlying problem: the pervasive sexual objectification that allows perpetrators and victims to view sexual harassment as normative. We need to be teaching students about rape culture, not just about how to ask for sex. Maybe we also should be teaching students about impulse control: “Hey, I’m about to traumatize a classmate or student for the rest of her/his life. What the hell am I doing?” Does it even matter that it’s wrong?”

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In “real life,” consent education doesn’t address the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault occurring in K-12 schools–the “training ground” for college assaults. Consent education won’t help students obtain their right to an equal education under Title IX, a federal civil rights law that numerous school districts fail to understand or implement. Consent education won’t address the many types of assault that plague students’ lives. Say, for example, a girl consents, but later breaks up with the boy; he retaliates by creating a hostile school environment. How will consent education help when the school fails to protect her under Title IX?  Consent education also won’t help victims of devastating cyber sexual harassment where there’s no touching, nothing to consent to.  How will consent education address the epidemic of oral rape in remote areas of school when the school pretends consent occurred, to protect a valued male student or to avoid liability? Consent education won’t help when the victim of an off-campus assault must face the perpetrator at school. Nor will consent education help when lecherous teachers claim they had consent. Consent education won’t help students subject to pervasive sexual harassment–particularly dangerous for girls and LGBTQ students. Consent education won’t help with sexual assault hazing either. In such cases—and countless others—Title IX education is the essential education students and schools need. Without the safeguards Title IX provides, young lives are severely compromised and destroyed.

When our daughter was raped, she, like countless other victims of harassment and assault, expected to be treated with dignity, not like a second class citizen by her school that privileged the assailant’s allegation of “consensual” sex.  Instead, the fear of liability for the assault was always foremost in the school’s strategy. But schools have clearly defined responsibilities under Title IX: to conduct a prompt, impartial investigation independent from law enforcement, to involve the Title IX coordinator, to address retaliation, to create a safe environment to ensure educational continuity, among other duties. Had the school acted appropriately to the report of sexual violence, we’re certain her life and education could have been salvaged. Moreover, schools are required to be proactive and take action, even when sexual harassment or “unwelcome sexual touching” is suspected.

Why do schools focus on consent education when students and families aren’t educated about Title IX rights and safeguards? Because by touting consent education, schools can appear proactive and deflect attention from their own failure to become Title IX compliant. In addition to teaching healthy relationships, school districts must educate themselves, their students, and families about Title IX.  Students must know their recourses when faced with persistent sexual harassment or unwelcome sexual touching. Schools must be made to understand the value of creating a school culture free from sexual harassment, sexual violence, and gender based-discrimination. Until schools step up to the plate, students, parents, and organizations must demand Title IX compliance.

We must raise awareness of the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault until young survivors feel supported and safe reporting.  We’ll begin to see change in K-12 schools when students, parents, PTAs, and school counselors form groups to discuss the right to an education free from sexual harassment, when parents demand Title IX compliance, when schools educate students and staff about Title IX, when the daily school announcement affirms students’ rights, when relevant notebook resources are provided to every student, when athletes step forward to speak against sexual harassment and assault, when peers practice bystander intervention, when students engage in  projects to raise awareness of their rights, when college-aged educators mentor high school students about their risks and rights, and when people from all walks of life care enough to take simple steps to hold schools accountable.

Consent education should never eclipse Title IX education. And the legal implications of affirmative consent (“yes means yes”) must be understood alongside Title IX. That’s another discussion.

SSAIS co-founder: Why Lady Gaga Should Be Talking to a Rape Victim’s Mother About K-12 Sexual Assault

Originally appeared in The Huffington Post

ladygagaLady Gaga is rightly applauded for her brave efforts to support sexual assault victims. Her performance of ‘Till It Happens to You is an integral part of The Hunting Ground film documenting campus assault, and she recently appeared in a New York “TimesTalks” panel alongside the film’s creators (director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering), her songwriter Dianne Warren, and NY Times journalist and panel moderator Frank Bruni to discuss the epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses.

In her TimesTalks panel appearance, Lady Gaga spoke about the secretive nature of sexual assault, but without disclosing a much larger secret–the festering epidemic of sexual violence in The Breeding Ground, our K-12 schools. After an hour-long panel on the pandemic of campus sexual violence, uninformed viewers would conclude that sexual assault originates when vulnerable freshmen arrive at college. But how could this be? Do students turn into predatory monsters between the June of high school graduation and September when the assaults begin in the notorious red zone? Surely rampant sexual assault can’t be attributed to new-found freedom.

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Why did Lady Gaga and panelists overlook the fundamental connection between “The Breeding Ground” and “The Hunting Ground”? The K-12 breeding ground is to the hunting ground as germs are to infection, a connection I’ve shared several times with the Hunting Ground team. According to all who monitor current research and reports from K-12 victims, “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,” Fatima Goss Graves, Senior Vice President for Program at the National Women’s Law Center wrote.

The reasons for ignoring the K-12 breeding ground are complex. Campus sexual assault is a “sexier” topic. Prestigious institutions and high profile athlete perpetrators are appealing subjects. Brave college survivors possess some maturity to come forward while K-12 students are struggling with an emerging sense of self. Families of elementary and secondary school students are in denial, terrified to imagine that their child could be assaulted (or might be in situation that could lead to assault). So parents pretend that sexual assault happens to other kids, not “good kids” like theirs. Students themselves have come to view sexual harassment, unwelcome touching, and sexual violence in their schools as normative, despite the toll it takes on their emotional health and education. So why bother to report?

When the few courageous students report, school districts typically stonewall complaints by blaming and shaming students for “consensual” sexual activity (or resort to other tactics) to avoid liability, bad press, and lawsuits. Never mind that schools are mandated under Title IX, a federal civil rights law, to provide students an education free from sexual harassment, unwelcome touching, sexual violence, and gender based discrimination. Most schools don’t even know their responsibilities under Title IX, even though their federal funding depends on enforcing Title IX. School districts’ failure to comply is amply documented by the advocacy nonprofit SSAIS.org.

We learned about Title IX the hard way after our teenage daughter was raped and sodomized by a classmate on a public school fieldtrip. For the last three years, we’ve been in the trenches addressing the aftermath of sexual assault. When the school treated our daughter inequitably, our state level Office of Public Instruction informed us of her Title IX rights, absent the required response from the district’s Title IX coordinator; our complaint resulted in a high profile U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights investigation of the district. But this information came far too late–after experiencing the hellish sexual assault secrets that can’t be fathomed ‘Till It Happens to You, a common refrain among survivor families. Our quest for justice brought us into contact with numerous families who recounted sexual assaults beginning in kindergarten (“The school told us to dress our daughter in spandex pants”). To spare others the nightmare we experienced, we formed the nonprofit Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS.org) to lead the country in a national movement to educate and empower families.

Lady Gaga and all stakeholders, listen up. Pervasive sexual harassment caused the NY Times designated “Godmother of Title IX,” Dr. Bernice Sandler, to write an entire book devoted to the subject in 2005, before campus sexual assault was widely discussed. By 2012, the Center for Disease Control declared sexual violence a serious health concern for adolescents. From the trenches, we routinely hears about groping and sexual intimidation in hallways, oral rapes (in soundproof music practice rooms and unsupervised locations), rapes behind buildings during sports practice, sexual violence on school busses, rapes at school dances followed by social media postings, sexual assaults on overnight school fieldtrips, sexual assaults of boys under the guise of “hazing,” self-harm and suicide when sexual harassment and violence destroys students’ lives, and teacher on student sexual assaults. And let’s not minimize the middle school environment where predatory students hone their skills. Our daughter’s rapist had already been disciplined in eighth grade for “lewd behavior,” after found having “consensual sex” on school property during recess.

When students’ lives and educational opportunities are compromised by sexual harassment and violence, all of us (including the next generation–the survivors’ children) experience the consequences. And while we see activists dabbling in the K-12 domain, our society needs a comprehensive, multi-pronged solution to sexual violence in K-12 schools, not ineffectual consent education. The question is whether anyone cares enough to ask what’s really required. Lady Gaga, celebrities, filmmakers, lawmakers, stakeholders, and visionaries: I dare you to ask us, I dare you to join us!

Women’s eNews interviews SSAIS co-founder

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University of La Verne professor of journalism Elizabeth Zwerling interviewed SSAIS co-founder Esther Warkov for an article titled Lawmakers Shift Campus Rape Conversation to High Schools. It appeared in the December 7 edition of Women’s eNews.

From the article:

Warkov said that even as legislators and educators begin to address sexual assault prevention, it is critical for students and their parents to educate themselves and to know their rights under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in education, including sexual harassment and sexual assault.

SSAIS First Ten Days Make Immediate Impact

Stop Sexual Assault in Schools launched its website on September 28th. Within 24 hours a grandmother contacted SSAIS seeking help after her school district showed deliberate indifference to reports of sexual assault upon her 5 year-old granddaughter. A Title IX complaint is now in the works.

HuffpostNext, The Huffington Post featured our activism history and unique website. Organizations quickly added links to the SSAIS resource on their websites, among them the Title IX blog (Prof. Erin Buzuvis), Culture of Respect, EROC, UnSlut Project, and the IHH film. The ACLU of WA posted our work as did education activists in Seattle, where the school district’s inappropriate response to a reported rape led to the formation of SSAIS.

Ten days after our launch, the National Women’s Law Center Senior Vice President for Program, Fatima Goss Graves wrote a powerful blog created for SSAIS, “Beyond the Campus: Protecting All Students From Sexual Assault,” in which she concluded:

Moreover, 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.

In just 10 days, the national media recognition and immediate support from organizations, Title IX experts, and allied organizations, such as Culture of Respect, EROC, and others, reveals a far-reaching validation of the SSAIS mission.