The U.S. Department of Education led by Secretary Betsy DeVos recently proposed new rules governing the way K-12 schools and colleges handle allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
Civil-rights advocates and survivors of sexual violence have expressed outrage, proclaiming that the new rules will dramatically limit schools’ obligations to students who file complaints of sexual harassment and violence under Title IX, the federal civil-rights statute that requires schools to investigate all reports of sexual harassment to find out if the harassment has made it harder for students to learn or stay in school.
The public has until Jan. 28, 2019, to comment on the proposed regulations before they are finalized into law.
Under the proposed changes, the current definition of sexual harassment — "unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature" — would include only behavior that is "severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive." This means that if a teacher makes sexually suggestive comments and a 12-year-old student feels uncomfortable, that isn’t necessarily harassment that the school is legally bound to investigate.
Under the new rules, only a teacher, Title IX coordinator or other high-level official can trigger an investigation. If a K-12 student told an adult school employee they trust — such as a sports coach, playground supervisor, or guidance counselor — that they had been sexually assaulted by another student, the school wouldn’t be obligated to intervene.
Schools would be required to ignore harassment that occurs outside of a school activity, including most off-campus and online harassment even if the student is forced to see the perpetrator at school every day.
If the new regulations are given the force of the law, advocates point out that representatives of the accused — often lawyers — will be allowed to cross-examine complainants at live hearings, a prospect that could discourage students from reporting incidents of sexual harassment and violence.
"DeVos's proposed rule will return us to a time when sexual assault survivors were ignored and felt they had nowhere to turn," said Washington Sen. Patty Murray at a press conference.
The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) has put together guidelines on how to submit an effective public comment on the proposed rules, and also is pushing for a longer comment period.
“If you believe students and survivors deserve a meaningful chance to be heard, definitely take a moment to tell them to extend the public comment period. Once the notice and comment period ends, the U. S. Department of Education (USED) has to review each comment and either make changes to the rules, or explain why they’ve ignored that element of the public’s input. In other words, the more unique comments they receive, the harder it will be for them to implement these changes legally,” reports NWLC.
Steps Seattle parents can take to create safe schools
Nearly 1 in 8 eighth-graders and 1 in 5 high-school seniors reported unwanted sexual contact, according to the 2016 Washington State Healthy Youth survey. Sexual assault and harassment can happen to anyone, though it disproportionately harms female students, students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students.
“If we don’t address sexual harassment in grade school, those behaviors get propagated into college and then into the workplace,” says Joel Levin, Cofounder and Director of Programs for the nonprofit Stop Sexual Assault in Schools.
Levin’s 15-year-old daughter was attending Garfield High School when she was brutally raped by another student on an overnight field trip to Olympic National Park in 2012. At the time, Levin and his wife, Esther Warkov, weren’t informed of the school’s legal obligation to investigate the incident under Title IX. It took six months before they found out about Title IX and were able to pursue accountability. At that point, their daughter was suffering from PTSD and was forced to leave Garfield to escape retaliation from the popular athlete who raped her and bullying from her peers.
“Our family is really no different than other families whose child has been severely sexually harassed or sexually assaulted except that in other cases, many children have taken their lives,” says Warkov, Executive Director and Co-Founder of SSAIS. “Thankfully that was not our experience.”
Galvanized by the devastating impact of the school’s failure to protect and support their daughter, Warkov and Levin founded Stop Sexual Assault In Schools (SSAIS), an organization dedicated to educating K-12 students, families and schools about students’ right to an education free from sexual harassment.
In partnership with the National Women’s Law Center, SSAIS recently launched #MeTooK12, a social-media hashtag campaign. The campaign encourages K-12 students and their allies to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. The hashtag spotlights the widespread sexual harassment that students experience even before entering college or the workforce, and underscores the urgency of addressing this problem in early education.
“Whatever the outcome of these regulations, parents should really get involved in working together in a collaborative way with their school to address sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual discrimination,” says Levin.
According to SSAIS, many K-12 schools, parents, and students are not aware of how Title IX relates to sexual harassment/assault in schools. For example, many wonder why schools should investigate student sexual assaults at all and not simply leave the matter to the police.
Title IX is a civil-rights law. It says that any educational institution that receives federal money may not discriminate against students on the basis of sex. Sexual harassment/assault is a form of discrimination because it can limit or prevent a student from participating in and benefiting from a school’s educational program.
“It’s really important for parents to see this as a community problem. It’s likely that every student knows someone who has been sexually harassed and the effects of the harassment bleeds into everyone’s life,” says Warkov. “It’s never too late or too early to lobby schools to be more proactive. Parents can advocate for their schools to be transparent and more accessible to all families.”
More resources on the subject:
Steps parents can take to create safe schools: Sexual harassment and assault are community problems that devastate students’ lives. What are the simple steps we can take to ensure Title IX compliance? Civil-rights attorney Jeffrey R. Caffee explains.
A Toolkit to Stop School Pushout for Girls Who Have Experienced Sexual Harassment, part of NWLC’s Let Her Learn series, will help you find out if your school treats girls fairly when they have been sexually harassed. Use this step-by-step checklist to learn what your rights are, how to change your school’s policies, and where to find help for sexual harassment.
Ending K-12 Sexual Harassment: A Toolkit for Parents and Allies: This new toolkit can help parents and allies find out what their schools are doing about sexual harassment. It contains video clips, fact sheets, a checklist, and ways to make positive change in your community.
Sexual Harassment: Not in Our School! An innovative streaming video for K-12 parents, middle- and high-school students, schools and community organizations. Watch high school students interview nationally recognized education, legal, and LGBTQ experts on the topic of harassment and learn from counselors, advocates, parents, and students. Includes Action Guide, Title IX Checklist, and many useful resources.
How to get help or file a complaint: If you believe that you or an SPS student or staff member has been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted, you can report the incident(s) to any school staff member or the District's Title IX Coordinator. For contact information and the SPS Discrimination Complaint Form, visit the SPS Title IX: Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault webpage.