Schools Must Overhaul How They Respond to Sexual Assault

by Heidi Goldstein, SSAIS Board chair

When I tell people that I work on issues of sexual harassment and assault in public schools, they are often surprised to learn that much of the work is focused on the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), where I live and my two children attended K-12. How is it, people wonder, that a progressive city like Berkeley can have sexual harassment problems in its schools?

Sadly, Berkeley is a microcosm of a much larger dynamic that regularly plays out in schools across the U.S. Poor policies and processes—implemented by staff who are inadequately trained or supported in their obligations to provide a safe and equitable learning environment, as Title IX requires—result in real damage, trauma and academic derailment to students who suffer incidents of sexual harm.

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The first week of February saw significant student turmoil at Berkeley High School (BHS), precipitated by several issues related to BUSD’s years-long failure to adequately address issues of sexual harassment and assault.

The most visible manifestations of the unrest included multiple instances of graffiti around the school naming “Boys to Watch Out 4”—a listing of known student harassers and assailants not unlike the “Shitty Media Men” list that came out during the #MeToo movement.

Highly visible around the BHS campus during February 6’s back-to-school night were flyers which read “BERKELEY HIGH STUDENTS DEMANDS” and included 10 specific demands for changes in the ways the district handles cases of sexual misconduct.  Other flyers posted around campus that evening included statistics and facts about the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault.

This same week also included media coverage of a recently-filed lawsuit against BUSD over improper handling of a student’s reported on-campus assault in May 2019; as well as public performances of a student written show called “Our Monologues,” featuring original narratives about the challenges students face around gender, race, sexuality and identity.

Then, on February 11, 1,000 students marched from Berkeley High School to the school district administration building several blocks away and occupied all three floors of the building.  Later that day, the superintendent met with student leaders to discuss their demands for increased student survivor support, Title IX oversight at Berkeley high school and changes in the ways BUSD handles cases of sexual misconduct. In response, the Title IX coordinator has provided an action plan for immediate response to key student demands. The district has determined the price tag attached to the student demands to be approximately $360,000 in additional staffing costs but has not yet taken further action on student demands.

There is a common theme to the confluence of these events: Students have grown frustrated with BUSD’s lack of focus, insufficient investment and extremely limited capacity to handle incidents of student-on-student sexual misconduct.

They are angry over the district’s inability to keep targets of harassment safe from physical intimidation and the social retaliation of their peers at school after they reach out for help.  They are dismayed by the perfunctory “restorative justice” remediation processes applied to their circumstances as “resolution,” and they are appalled at the absence of consequences or discipline processes to discourage perpetrators from such behaviors.  Now, the students are demanding the district change its approach.

Since 2014, when I started working on sexual misconduct issues as a member of the BUSD Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee, and as an adult advisor to the student grassroots advocacy organization, BHS Stop Harassing, there has been little headway or sustained change to improve these dynamics.  Incidents occur in grades K-12 every year: Students are hurt, and distracting social retaliation across the student population is rampant.  Parents are bewildered as to how to help their children and receive limited guidance from the district in navigating its processes.  Every year, some students leave the district because the response to their incident is poor, and supports for success at school are insufficient. Some families sue the district, and win reparations.  Most students just tolerate the abuse and don’t reach out for help because they have seen how others before them have suffered from inadequate protections and poor process when they sought help.

It is time to re-examine why BUSD is unable to create a safer, harassment-free environment for K-12 students, why it has yet to develop a robust curriculum to educate K-12 students about the issues, and why it is unable to effectively handle the misconduct issues when they arise.  I believe the answer to these questions can be found in the sustained lack of investment BUSD has made in organizational and programmatic support since it was compelled, in late 2014, to admit that it did not have even the most basic infrastructure in place to comply with Title IX and other educational equity laws.

The students at BHS have put out the call for dialogue; their list of demands is the blueprint for the conversation.  Next week they will hold a series of walk-outs and workshops with their peers to refine their asks of the district: to improve their learning environment; to provide meaningful access to safety after an incident occurs; and to implement robust, balanced processes for resolution and justice. No one knows better than they what is working and what is not.

District leadership would do well to follow the advice educators often give to failing students: Engage in frank discussions, fact finding and self-evaluation to understand why they aren’t delivering to the standard.  Make a corrective plan, and make a declaration of your intentions to execute on it so others may hold you accountable.  The district owes nothing less to the students and families it exists to serve.

Read the full list of recommendations developed by staff members of the BUSD Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee (SHAC) here.

This blog appeared in MS. Magazine.

Heidi Goldstein has served on the Berkeley Unified School District’s Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee since 2014 and is a founding adult advisor to the student grassroots advocacy organization, BHS Stop Harassing. She serves on the advisory board of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools.

Two Years of #MeTooK12: Analyzing the Impact of the Campaign to End Sexual Harassment in Schools

On New Year’s Day in 2018, Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS) launched the #MeTooK12 campaign in partnership with the National Women’s Law Center. The campaign harnesses the awareness and urgency generated by the #MeToo movement to spotlight the widespread sexual harassment that students experience before entering college or the workforce.

On this second anniversary, we look at the campaign’s impact to date and where it’s headed.

Shortly after campaign launch, #MeTooK12 was featured in major national and international news outlets including The New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, U.S. News, Associated PressThe Guardian and many others. Reporters interviewed K-12 parents, counselors and educators, and gave students an opportunity to share their experiences. Despite statistics showing that most K-12 students experience sexual harassment before graduation, these journalists noted that the issue has been widely overlooked, dismissed and normalized.

Publications for educators, such as Education Week, The 74, NEA Today and ASCD Express, cited #MeTooK12 as evidence that schools could no longer ignore students who don’t want to be shielded or sidelined from conversations on topics that affect them. Students expressed a desire to learn about dating violence, hazing, sexting and consent, agreeing unanimously that waiting for college to address these subjects is too late.

At its annual virtual conference, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) sponsored a special keynote session “#MeTooK12 and #MeToo: What does it mean for schools?”  SSAIS participated in the webinar and contributed #MeTooK12-themed educational materials to the AFT Share My Lesson collection, available to all educators.

#MeTooK12 appears in new books aimed at middle school and high school students. The Silence Breakers and the #metoo Movement describes the campaign as promoting school culture change, and Sexual Harassment in the Age of #metoo states that #MeTooK12 wants to “give middle school and high school students a place to speak out about sexual assault.”

School principals and district administrators learned about #MeTooK12 in professional journals such as District AdministratorCampus Safety Magazine, and K-12 Insight. We see online reports about schools conducting assemblies on sexual harassment. Several education law firms reference #MeTooK12 to emphasize schools’ Title IX responsibilities. Families reading the parenting magazine Seattle’s Child learned about the campaign in the context of how the proposed changes to Title IX rules would affect students who report sexual harassment.

Digital media outlets that target youth and young adult audiences ran features on #MeTooK12. Now This Her devoted an entire segment to #MeTooK12. Scholastic Choice, Seventeen, Teen Vogue, Bustle, Babe and others reported on students who live with persistent sexual harassment, and their frustration with the indifference with which schools react to their complaints.

Student journalists in Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Elkhorn wrote articles for their school newspapers. A recurring theme was how #MeTooK12 had stimulated important conversations about sexual harassment in schools where previously the topic had been studiously avoided.

Academics drew connections between #MeTooK12 and high-profile national events such as the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. One study explains how media coverage of the Kavanaugh proceedings influenced discourse about sexual harassment in K-12 schools. Another encourages student participation in local decision-making about teaching sexual harassment and personal boundary-setting. The campaign even inspired a Maryland state legislator to propose a law requiring sexual consent be taught in schools. Four other states introduced similar bills.

Advocacy groups said that #MeTooK12 reflects public recognition that gender-based harassment and discrimination must be addressed before students enter college and the workplace. Articles by Ms., Domestic Violence Network, National Center on Sexual Exploitation and America’s Progress encouraged students and parents to act as change agents for shaping school culture “to the point where consent is the norm, bystanders step in, and everybody’s job is to make sure victims feel like they can come forward and hold perpetrators accountable.”

In sum, #MeTooK12 has kindled conversations in disciplines as diverse as sexual assault prevention and response, social work, gender equity, child development, educational leadership and many others.

The campaign amplified the voices of students who had been victimized by peer and staff harassment; engaged a diverse group of constituencies around the need to address systemic gender discrimination in K-12 schools; broadened the #MeToo movement to encompass the antecedents/roots of workplace sexual harassment; stimulated the adoption of K-12 sexual harassment prevention programs like consent education, bystander intervention and Title IX compliance; and expanded #MeToo activism to encompass K-12 students facing educator abuse, peer harassment and institutional betrayal/mismanagement.

It also inspired extensive new resources, such those found on the SSAIS #MeTooK12 resources page—including blogs, advocacy protocols, exemplary curricula and policies and toolkits. The National Women’s Law Center even issued new resources under the #MeTooK12 banner.

Although social media campaigns often have diminishing impact over time, we see #MeTooK12 evolving from awareness building to stimulating policy reforms/solutions in individual schools, districts, education agencies and legislatures. We envision #MeTooK12 maturing from a rallying cry to a watchword for school-community partnerships aimed at enhancing K-12 student safety and gender equity in all schools.

It also inspired extensive new resources, such those found on the SSAIS #MeTooK12 resources page—including blogs, advocacy protocols, exemplary curricula and policies and toolkits. The National Women’s Law Center even issued new resources under the #MeTooK12 banner.

Although social media campaigns often have diminishing impact over time, we see #MeTooK12 evolving from awareness building to stimulating policy reforms/solutions in individual schools, districts, education agencies and legislatures. We envision #MeTooK12 maturing from a rallying cry to a watchword for school-community partnerships aimed at enhancing K-12 student safety and gender equity in all schools.

We’re encouraged by the recent proactive steps taken by the Portland, OR Public Schools in building stakeholder coalitions inclusive of parent and student voices under the #MeTooK12 banner, which is widely promoted in district communications. It’s a model that other districts should adopt. They must work to ensure their Title IX policies are transparent, equitable and enforced, and that staff is trained to respond fairly and compassionately to reports of sexual harassment and violence.

As one high school student observed: “The start of ‘a new day’ can only happen once discourse starts. And now that it has, now that all of this is being taken seriously, I think that anything is possible.”

#MeTooK12: Impact and reach is a categorized list of publications that reference the #MeTooK12 campaign.

Reposted from Ms. Magazine.

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Immediate Response is Key to Successful Title IX Response

by Megan Farrell, Title IX and Civil Rights Officer, Palo Alto Unified School District

When I joined Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) in 2017 as Title IX Coordinator, the District had recently completed a resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) related to a wide-reaching Title IX investigation.  As part of this agreement, PAUSD agreed to hire its first full-time Title IX Coordinator.  While most if not all colleges and universities were well aware of the requirements related to complying with Title IX, many school districts, lacking funding and expertise, had not undertaken a concerted effort to comply.

During my tenure at PAUSD, I have had the opportunity to work closely with dedicated and professional administrators whose focus has always been on the best interest of the students.  Unfortunately, many of them had not been trained in Title IX prior to my arrival and did not understand the intricacies related to its requirements for response, investigation, and conclusion.  While Title IX covers all forms of sex-based discrimination (i.e., access to educational programs, parity in athletics), the majority of my work in this period has involved sexual harassment and sexual misconduct matters.

Over the course of these years with PAUSD, I have concluded that assisting administrators with an immediate, reasoned response is a critical to managing Title IX claims and achieving the goal of allowing students to pursue their education without the fear of discrimination/harassment.  The information contained in this blog deals with the immediate response, oftentimes prior to the initiation of a formal/informal investigation and definitely prior to reaching a conclusion about whether the Districts’ Sexual Harassment and/or Nondiscrimination policies have been violated.

Below are my suggestions for both Title IX Coordinators and school level administrators to assist in the process.

What is NOTICE of a Title IX matter?

As general guidance, a district is deemed to have notice of a Title IX matter when a “responsible employee” learns of a situation that may give rise to a Title IX complaint that the district must investigate.  Under OCR guidance, responsible employees are those who have authority to redress or a duty to report incidents of sexual violence, or those who students reasonably believe have this authority or duty. In many districts, responsible employees include administrators, counselors, and teachers.  At PAUSD, all employees of the District regardless of their title are considered responsible employees.  The information regarding who is a responsible employee at any given District should be included in the District policies or on the website.

What is the OBLIGATION when a district learns of a Title IX matter?

As a guiding principle, districts need to remember its underlying obligation – upon notice of a Title IX matter, they must:

  • Stop the harassment;
  • Remedy the effects of the harassment; and,
  • Prevent the harassment from occurring in the future.

What are the STEPS to an immediate, reasoned response?

Although it is difficult to predict exactly what might be necessary in any given circumstance, below is a list of considerations:

  1. Identify a School Point Person

For all those involved in a Title IX matter – the reporting party, the responding party, friends of both (who may have brought the initial report), and parents –  the process can be intimidating and scary.  Providing a party with a designated, on-campus point person can help everyone feel safe and solidify that that the District is taking the matter seriously.  Normally, we try to select an administrator with whom the individual has a relationship prior to the incident.  When there is not an administrator who fits, we will find a non-confidential counselor or teacher, and our Title IX Office supports the point person with any response that is necessary.

    2. External Reporting Requirements

Title IX matters often trigger other reporting requirements.  Upon learning of the matter, consider whether a report is necessary to:

      • State welfare organization – most employees do this immediately due to mandatory reporter obligation. Districts are required to train on this mandatory reporting obligation in most states.
      • Local Police

These reports are often state-mandated and cannot wait.

  1. Physical and Mental Health Support for Parties

Title IX matters often involve trauma and stress.  Districts should ensure that they have resources to assist the parties and extend this support to other students who may be impacted.  Responsible employees should know how to access this mental health support.  Providing this information on the school website can assist in getting this information into the hands of those who need it.

Medical Health Assistance – Students should be given information about where to go for support after a sexual assault, maintaining evidence (clothing, etc.), and where they can receive a Sexual Assault Response Team examination.

Mental Health Support – Both parties may need the assistance of mental health professionals to manage the trauma and stress related to the Title IX matter.  School resources that provide support and confidential services (if appropriate) should be shared with the parties.  Initial appointments should be scheduled if possible.  Districts should also compile a list of local resources, in the event that the parties may not want to receive this care through the District, including  fee and free service options. Both the reporting party and the responding party should be given access to these resources.

  1. Academic and School Programs

Upon notification of a Title IX matter, schools need to examine how the students involved can continue to pursue their education.  In many instances, this may mean altering students’ schedules and/or participation in school-sponsored activities.  Prior guidance from OCR allowed preferences to be given to the requests of the reporting party.  More recent guidance in 2017 advised schools to weigh the impact of the changes on both parties before instituting a change.

For example, if two students are in the same class, one may request that the other student be moved.  In reaching a decision about the class, the school must weigh a number of factors and allow both parties to pursue their education.  At PAUSD, we have moved one or both students, have allowed students to finish the class through independent study, moved seats, and also had class monitors attend the class going forward.  Unfortunately, there is generally not a simple solution, and many factors need to be analyzed before an adequate solution is found.

Districts should review their policies before making any changes, and in complicated cases seek the advice of an expert or counsel.  In addition, OCR plans to issue new regulations in the near future that could impact what schools are required to do going forward.

  1. Safety Measures

In order for students to pursue their education, they need to feel safe at school.  Thus, schools should address what safety measures are necessary.

No Contact Directives – In general, these directives keep students from communicating while the investigation is pending.  At PAUSD, we routinely issue these directives to ensure that we are preventing the possibility of continued harassment.  Our directives prohibit the students from communicating with one another at school and off-campus.  The prohibition includes verbal outreach and digital/social media posts about the other party.

Safety Plans – When a matter involves a serious allegation that includes potential violence, and/or students interacting frequently during the course of a normal school day, a more detailed Safety Plan can be used to address class and non-class time. Some of the areas that we usually cover in creating a safety plan include the following: designating how a student will arrive and depart from school; setting up specific routes for students to follow when traveling to and from classes; designating where students eat lunch; identifying when students use campus resources (library, technology lab); deciding who will and will not attend any school activity (dances, teams, clubs); and, including any other protections related to time/space where students might interact or run into one another.

In the K12 arena, the immediate response of the district is integral to allowing the students to feel safe and continue their education.  Without a concerted response, students are left feeling unsupported and may disengage from their education.  Each Title IX claim is unique and different, and the responses need to be tailored to the circumstances.  Hopefully, this article can guide some of these responses and serve the best interests of the students.

Megan Farrell is the Title IX Coordinator and Civil Rights Officer for PAUSD and can be reached at mfarrell@pausd.org.  She also consults with K12, colleges, and universities on Title IX. You can reach her at Megan@titleixconsult.com.  

PAUSD’s Sexual Harassment Policy

PAUSD’s Nondiscrimination Policy

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