It often takes survivors of sexual harassment and assault months after they disclose the abuse to learn about Title IX and its protections against a hostile school environment. Countless students could return to school if sexual assault crisis centers, advocacy organizations, and sexual assault response teams would explain students’ safeguards at school.
These community-based organizations can be valuable victim advocates and champions for Title IX education, compliance, and proactive school policies that support survivors’ rights to continue their education safely. Especially now that the U.S. Department of Education has upended decades of guidance on Title IX and sexual harassment, students and families need reliable information to navigate conflicting district, state and federal policies on reporting and supportive measures.
On this new page, SSAIS spotlights the perspectives of nonprofit advocacy organizations on educating K-12 students about schools’ Title IX responsibilities to provide a safe learning environment for all.
What is your local or state sexual assault organization doing to address the impact of sexual harassment and assault on students’ education? Contact us to share your insights.
Watch Cheryl Ann Graf, ARNP, Forensic Nurse, take a call from a high school rape victim and explain her Title IX rights at minute 5:20.
by Julia DeLuca, K-12 Education Specialist at Planned Parenthood of Central & Western New York
I work at a small rape crisis center, RESTORE, in Western New York, which offers students programming about sexual assault, healthy relationships, and bystander intervention. As “K-12 Advocate and Education Specialist,” my job is to meet with students who have experienced a Title IX infraction and advocate for their rights in any of approximately 50 school districts our agency serves.
When I started the position in July 2019, it was unclear how to advocate for students in K-12 schools who experienced sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, sexual harassment, or discrimination based on (actual or perceived) LGBTQ identity. I lacked a roadmap.
Historically, RESTORE became involved with school districts only when the assault was handled so poorly, when the retaliation was so egregious, when the school officials were so indifferent (at best) or hostile (at worst) that students and their families were at their wits’ end. Picture situations similar to the 2012 Steubenville rape case.
One of my supervisors mentioned she had wanted a database of contact personnel in schools, so I spent my first few weeks creating an extensive database of principals, assistant principals, secretaries, nurses, guidance counselors, psychologists, and social workers. They were the ones most likely to come into contact with and respond to students who disclosed. I emailed them all, saying how our community agency was available to support students and teachers, and that we (and our stellar education team) were available to offer educational programs for staff and students.
The answers started pouring in. Most were automated out-of-the-office replies, telling me that I should have waited another week or so until sending that email. Next year I will that message during the last week of August, rather than mid-August.
But many replied and said they wanted me to come in and talk about what our organization could do for them. This was a good step! Anything to get us into the schools before the assault happened, rather than after the disclosure.
I looped in the education team staff to ask someone to come with me—I was still new, learning the ropes, and they were more knowledgeable and experienced. The staff we met with were also interested in taking proactive steps to halt sexual violence before it occurred. Some even wanted us to give teachers a run-down of their responsibilities under Title IX: who was a responsible party, who was “private” and who was “confidential.” (“Private” means that the professional may need to share the disclosure with some staff; “confidential” means that the professional cannot share the disclosure without permission).
Prior to the new Title IX regulations, the distinction between who was “private” and who was “confidential” differed depending on a school district’s policy. Now that distinction is gone: a school is deemed to have “actual knowledge” of allegations of sexual harassment or assault when they are brought to “any elementary or secondary school employee” (p.32). However, even when a staff member must pass the information to another school official, such as a principal or counselor, there should be every attempt made to keep the disclosure private.
School staff also wanted to know the difference between mandated or non-mandated reporting situations, and how to appropriately support a student disclosure. I answered, explaining,
- A responsible party is a person whom the student perceives as having the power and/or ability to address the disclosure that the student is making. That may look different depending on the person’s role in the school. For example, a teacher may need to pass on the report to a principal or guidance counselor, while that same principal is tasked with beginning an official investigation into the incident the student is disclosing.
- A mandatory report or CPS call need only be made if the student discloses that their perpetrator is a parent or other responsible guardian. Everything else is not a mandatory report. If a staff member is confused, they can (and should) still contact CPS with their concerns! CPS will clearly tell them whether the offense they are reporting is something that they can follow up on. In addition, Title IX may provide protections, depending on the circumstances.
- Believe reporting students: false reports of sexual assault are low. When a student feels safe enough to disclose their assault, it demonstrates how much the student trusts their teacher. Ask the student how you can support them.
Within the first six months, I visited nearly two dozen schools—elementary, middle, and high schools across nearly as many districts. They range from affluent suburban schools, to alternative inner-city urban schools, to rural schools where the district is so small that all of the K-12 students attend classes in the same big building.
I’ve seen how most of the staff I meet genuinely want to learn more about how to best support students. They believe students when they disclose sexual assaults. But staff just haven’t received the training to support students’ accessing their Title IX rights.
My first-year goal year was to begin making connections with schools and to offer assistance with cases or training if appropriate. I was pleasantly surprised by the positive response to my emails and the warm welcome I received when visiting schools. As I came to know my coworkers, fellow professionals, and community members, I was impressed by the breadth of the experience we possessed.
Some cases were difficult, draining, and exhausting as they stretched on for months or even years. Others were rewarding as the survivor and their family found justice or healing. But these were all reactive, after-the-fact approaches to tackling sexual assault in schools. Increasingly, we have found that the bulk of the work needs to be done proactively in the form of programming and professional development. By creating a culture where bodily autonomy, boundaries, and healthy relationships are taught and enforced, schools can prevent the bulk of sexual misconduct cases before they occur.
As K-12 Advocate and Education Specialist, I belong to a large network of family advocates, educators and program facilitators, CPS workers, lawyers, and school personnel—principals, guidance counselors and social workers, nurses, and secretaries (they know everything and everyone!). Referrals among us are common, for example, teachers refer to our education team, to guidance counselors or principals, principals to local Child Advocacy Centers and their advocates, advocates refer to me, I refer back to the principals or family advocates or therapists. It is a large system that requires considerable communication and collaboration between people and agencies.
Many families I’ve worked with express frustration with the slow pace of their school’s response. They feel that their cases are left to wilt. I concur. Those feelings are understandable and valid.
As the new Title IX regulations take effect, these feelings will likely compound with confusion and disappointment. For example, under the new Title IX regulations, students will be exposed to escalating levels of sexual harassment because schools are only required to take Title IX action if the harassment is considered “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.” Because there are no objective standards for determining what constitutes “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” harassment for individual students at different ages, students will be at increased risk. It will be imperative to educate school staff on the negative impact of all forms of sexual harassment to better protect students.
The school may issue corrective measures upon learning of allegations of sexual harassment or assault depending on their policies. But under the new Title IX rules, the school must take action only if the harassment is considered “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.” In my view, this new standard will subject students to escalating levels of harassment until someone might determine that Title IX applies. Because there are no objective standards for determining what constitutes “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” harassment for individual students at different ages, students will be at increased risk. As a result, we must actively educate school staff on the negative impact of all forms of sexual harassment to better protect students.
Local SART teams or rape crisis agencies can work with schools and Title IX Coordinators to mitigate the impact of the new regulations by drafting policies that comply with the new regulations while maintaining the rights and dignity of student survivors. More than ever before, it’s important that SART teams and rape crisis agencies work with students, families, and schools to proactively address the negative impact of sexual harassment and assault on students’ education.
What is your sexual assault crisis center doing to address the impact of sexual harassment and assault on students’ education? Contact Stop Sexual Assault in Schools to share your insights.
5 Ways Advocacy Organizations Can Support K-12 Survivors
by Kelly Stec, Advocacy Director, and
Taryn Gal, Executive Director,
Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health (MOASH)
In a world that feels more than ever like everything is on fire, it can be difficult to know where to begin your work as an ally to students facing sexual harassment and assault. To that end, we’d like to provide some critical considerations to keep in mind as you move forward. Below, we share some of our critical understandings and impactful action steps that we take at MOASH. We hope you will consider them as well.
1. Recognize the scope of your work
Sexual violence overlaps with all the work we do at MOASH—sex education, access to sexual health services, programming for expectant and parenting youth, consent and gender-based discrimination, and promoting inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQIA+ youth. Sexual violence and harassment are also very much present in what we do and experience outside of work—getting catcalled when walking our dogs, comments about our bodies when at yoga, or being purposefully misgendered at a doctor’s appointment. Regardless of where and how people spend their work and recreation time, there is a connection to sexual violence—either in policies and practices, institutional history, experiences of peers, and/or other ways.
Siloing, or isolating different work areas from each other, is unfortunately incredibly apparent within adolescent sexual health; topics of puberty, sexually transmitted infections, and contraception are rarely discussed alongside sexual violence prevention. Even in Michigan, where healthy relationships must be taught as a component of sexual health education, it often puts the onus of rape prevention on the potential victim (e.g., “teach pupils how to say no” and “teach refusal skills”).
Sex education provides a unique opportunity to discuss violence prevention within youth relationships. According to the recently revised National Sex Ed Standards, consent and healthy relationships (CHR) is one of seven topics chosen as minimum essential content and skills for K-12 sex education. This includes special emphasis on personal boundaries, bodily autonomy, sexual agency and consent, and the increasing use and impact of technology within relationships.
Sexual violence is not only a sex education topic. People tend to view sexual violence prevention, trigger warnings, and care for survivors of abuse and violence as topics for discussion only in sex education classes. But students do not magically become un-victimized or immune to violence in their other pursuits in their school and community.
It is a chilling statistic that nearly one in four girls and one in six boys will be abused before they turn 18 (not to mention the higher incidence rates and lack of reporting for transgender and nonbinary youth). These numbers should remind all people who work with youth in any capacity that there is a high likelihood of a survivor being in their care. Coaches, educators, mentors, religious leaders, and any other person who works with young people should be called to join our work in stopping sexual abuse and assault, no matter their specific scope of practice. Additionally, topics of sexual violence appear in history, literature, and current events discussed in other class subjects. All teachers should receive professional development on how to create survivor-centered approaches to these conversations.
Sexual violence prevention and response is inextricably linked to fields outside of education and direct service survivor support. The term “reproductive justice” was coined by Black women whose voices were left out of early reproductive rights work. To be a true ally in this fight is to know that it is inherently bound up with other civil rights work, especially racial and economic justice. There are many ways organizations can educate themselves, incorporate anti-racist practices and principles, and make their work more inclusive. Some activities and tools organizations can use include Michigan League for Public Policy Racial Equity Challenge (MOASH staff have created a White Accountability Workgroup and are currently working through the 21-day challenge together) and Nonprofit AF’s Equity Screen Tool.
2. Center the people you serve: youth
No matter what type of organization you are—be it a school, local health center, or advocacy group—listen to youth. All of MOASH’s work is founded in the effort to amplify the voices of youth who have been most historically marginalized. MOASH does this work through our multiple youth advisory councils, whose members inform all of the work we do. We work alongside authentically engaged youth to provide scaffolding (e.g., making the appointments for youth meetings with elected officials, providing training on expectations for meeting with elected officials, and/or providing or coordinating transportation support to attend meetings with elected officials) for each member to feel power and agency, both individually and collectively. Through the youth advisory councils, each member has a platform for their voice, the opportunity to acquire new leadership skills, and the opportunity to utilize those skills to affect society outside of the council. We are happy to serve as a resource if you need additional information on creating your own youth-centered space.
We strongly encourage you to keep the following in mind:
- Understand that youth have rights. Youth rights don’t mean anything if young people can’t exercise them, and how can youth exercise their rights if they don’t even know they exist? Unfortunately, resources surrounding Title IX and students’ rights to protection from sexual harassment and sexual violence are rarely accessible to the young people whom they are meant to serve. The rights of minors differ to some degree among states; however, all youth have the right to know their rights and how to exercise those rights. We see this lack of awareness and lack of accessibility regularly in many other areas of our work, as well, in areas related to minor rights to abortion; rights of expectant and parenting youth for healthcare, education, and parenting; and minor rights to access sexual health services.
- Believe young people. Although we still have a long way to go, as a society, we are beginning to see the important shift to #BelieveSurvivors through the #MeToo movement. Yet, according to an NPR poll, 56% of Americans still believe that false accusations of sexual assault against men are very common, 85% of men believe those who are accused of sexual assault should be given the benefit of the doubt, and 43% of Americans believe the #MeToo movement has gone too far. Youth have an additional barrier—their age. According to Act for Youth, “Adultism is rooted in the belief that young people lack intelligence or ability. This belief is strongly supported by societal norms which leave young people [rightfully] feeling that they are not valued, respected, or heard.”In addition to believing young survivors, we must believe and affirm other youth experiences, as well as their fears, and concerns. For example, students experience the climate of their schools nearly every day, and, if they’re speaking out about an issue, it’s unlikely they’re the only one with that concern. Creating a safe space to discuss concerns, with the ability to do so anonymously where law allows, can help us better understand which problems are most pressing to students.
- Don’t forget K-12! Sexual violence prevention and response work, especially around Title IX, is too often only associated with institutions of higher education. “Young people” is a much broader age range than people often consider. While Title IX discussions often focus on higher education, K-12 schools also fall under its purview, and the voices of elementary and middle school students should bear equal weight to their older counterparts. It can be difficult to have these conversations with the younger age groups, but they are not immune to the impact of sexual assault and abuse, and finding ways to hear from them will make you a better advocate overall. According to Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, sexual harassment and assault violence in K-12 schools is an epidemic that is underreported, hidden, and ignored, in both addressing incidents and implementing prevention efforts.The majority of 7th to 12th grade girls say harassment regularly happens and it’s hurting their ability to learn. Eighty percent of schools reported exactly zero harassment, according to a report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). The vast majority of high school students arrive at college with no formal education around consent, and incidents of sexual violence continue to be unreported and unrecognized by youth due to a lack of knowledge about consent, rights, and resources. Research shows that consent education in K-12 can reduce incidents of nonconsensual sexual acts in high school and college. Adolescence is a critical time to provide anti-sexual violence education, when significant gains in health can be made and when lifelong patterns of health behavior are established.There must be more done to increase awareness about incidence and prevalence of sexual harassment and violence in K-12. Prevention and response efforts in K-12 schools is appropriate and necessary. Young people are never too young to learn about this. Read one of MOASH’s resources on talking about Title IX with five-to-seven-year-olds.
3. Recognize and affirm intersecting identities
It is especially important to hear from, work alongside, and advocate for youth who live in the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, such as LGBTQIA+ youth of color. These young people are more likely to have been sexually assaulted, and their voices are too often ignored by those making decisions. Sexual violence is rooted in systemic racism, and MOASH works to address health disparities and inequities related to sexual violence through initiatives like the Step Toward Equity Program and the Michigan Youth (MY) Consent Culture program. We must recognize the role that power, privilege, discrimination, and oppression play in creating disparities that exist between groups.
4. Learn where you can make the biggest change–and reach out to the correct audience
Too often, work in our field is disjointed, duplicative, and inefficient. Here are three recommendations from MOASH staff about how to streamline work in a way that is impactful and intentional:
- Support those already doing the work. The fight to protect survivors and prevent sexual assault did not begin with us, and it won’t end with us, either. Take a moment to learn the history of Title IX; the law; relevant local, regional, and national organizations; and your own school district or institution of higher education. Ask those already engaged in this work what they need to advance their efforts – do not assume that you know what is needed to combat sexual violence without understanding what has already been tried and tested. Support and collaborate with organizations that promote gender equity.
- Collaborate. After the previous step, only then is it appropriate for you to begin introducing yourself and suggesting collaboration. Get creative with your collaborations. Everyone has a role to play in sexual violence prevention, so engage them and identify ways to work together to further advance this work. MOASH intentionally includes all voices in sexual violence prevention work—youth, survivors, K-12 educators (in all subjects), Title IX lawyers, sexual health curriculum writers, elected officials, parents, parent-teacher organization representatives, researchers, and others.
- Approach policymakers. When asked if there’s one piece of advice to give advocates, MOASH Advocacy Director Kelly Stec says, “Reaching out to the appropriate policymakers can be the difference between activist burnout and making moves toward the world we all want. Local changes often happen more quickly than state ones, and the federal government is notoriously hard to shift, but policy change is possible at all levels with the right combination of messaging and direct action.”Here are examples of local, state, and federal work that you can get involved in:
- Ultimately, Title IX is a federal program, and the new rules put out by the DeVos administration show disregard for the law’s original intent. One of the best ways you can help on this level right now is to get involved with (including donating to!) organizations that are suing to prevent these rules from coming into effect, including the National Women’s Law Center, Stop Sexual Assault In Schools, and Know Your IX. Eventually our collective efforts will create an overflow of demand for change.
- Run for office, whether it is at the local, state, or federal level. Radical institutional change doesn’t happen until people interested in radical institutional change hold office. Support your staff in pursuing their interest and passion for running for office, such as city council or school board, in a way that is still allowed within legal constraints of your organization (e.g., 501c3 status). Individuals can work for both an organization and, separately, hold an elected position.
- In Michigan, schools have flexibility at the district level, and local sex education advisory boards (SEABS) are responsible for the approval of content and goals for students, with some curricular goals mandated by the state. Although this is Michigan-specific, other states have similar structures. Encourage youth to apply for the open seats on their SEABs, and apply for membership yourself as an engaged adult. This is the single best way to have a direct say in how your home district educates youth about health and sex. If you’re as concerned as we are that Michigan teaches refusal skills but not consent, or that we stress the importance of abstinence but don’t discuss sexual orientation or gender identity, state-level advocacy is your pathway to change. Contact your state representative and senator and hold them accountable to making needed changes to the state’s curricular structure.
5. Use your privilege for good
As an adult reading this blog, you already have access to more resources than many of the young people in your life. It can be helpful to utilize Ring Theory, which helps us know when it’s our place to talk and when we should listen. Recognizing the levels of privilege we are afforded through age, gender, race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status can be uncomfortable, but will ultimately make us better advocates and allies. As a person with adult privilege, I recommend that you:
- Educate yourself about Title IX and adultism
- Amplify the voices of young people
- Get involved with organizations already doing this work, including donating and fundraising
MOASH intentionally identifies privileges of adult staff and uses that privilege to amplify youth voice and recognize young people as equal partners in our work. One way MOASH does this is through the organization’s multiple youth advisory councils, where young people are provided compensation for their time and energy to inform MOASH programming and policy.
We hope you find these ideas helpful, and we are always here to discuss ways to get active in your community. Thank you for being a partner in this fight.
Authors’ Note: MOASH mobilizes youth voices, engages community partners, and informs decision-makers to advance sexual health, identities, and rights. As an organization that works to ensure young people have access to high quality sex education and sexual health services, MOASH understands the importance of responding to sexual violence and has come to learn that there are many ways we can support this work without providing direct service to survivors. However, we are still learning ourselves, and we invite you to engage with us on other ideas you have found useful in this work.
Edited by Brittany Batell, Program and Engagement Manager, MOASH
Contact Taryn Gal, Executive Director, or Kelly Stec, Advocacy Director at firstname.lastname@example.org.