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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.