Students Drive New Policies As K-12 Sexual Assault Investigations Rise

Aug 8, 2017
Originally published on August 10, 2017 7:31 am

Oakland Unified School District in California recently revamped its sexual harassment and assault policy. I attended the school board vote with Andrea Zamora, 17, a rising high school senior who helped develop the new policy with a local nonprofit, Alliance for Girls.

"I feel like all my hard work, and everything that we've all collaborated together, has paid off," Zamora told me.

The new policy designates a point person at each school to handle sexual assault and harassment, and lays out the reporting process transparently for students, teachers and parents alike. Before, Oakland's district had just one person – the district's ombudsperson – who was responsible for fielding sexual assault and harassment complaints from all 36,000 students.

Putting policies like this one in place and training school staff can be expensive. At big school districts, it can run a quarter-million dollars.

As we were sitting and watching the school board pass the new policy, Zamora noticed her mom quietly wiping away tears. Then she, too, got choked up.

As Zamora became interested in how schools handle sexual harassment and assault, she started thinking differently about a tradition at her elementary school called "Slap Ass Friday."

"The girls were hiding, putting their butts behind the wall. And then guys would try to hit them," she said. "The guys were like sharks."

Actually, I've had a run-in with Slap Ass Friday, too. I told Zamora, "I just remember this little twerp sixth-grader like running across to me with his hand going up to me and, POW!"

I also spoke to a teacher, Rori Abernethy, who used to teach math at Oakland High School and said she regularly addressed sexual harassment and assault between students.

"I got burned out. I felt like I was doing lawyering more than teaching," Abernethy said. "And that's a big reason why I left Oakland, because I really want to teach."

After almost a decade at Oakland High, Abernethy switched districts last year.

"Just the day-to-day job of teaching is exhausting," she said. "If another child comes and reports something, you can't just let it go. You have to do something. That's somebody's life."

In fact, federal law requires schools to look into sexual harassment and assault, which both fall under Title IX, a law most commonly associated with women's access to sports.

"Title IX actually covers a surprisingly wide range of activities. It's an anti-discrimination statute," said William Koski, director of the Youth and Education Law Project at Stanford University. It can cover sexual harassment, sexual violence, etc.

"Hostile environments" are also covered under Title IX, said Koski. What is a hostile environment? Imagine sitting in second period next to a guy who assaulted you, or running into him alone in an empty hallway. The responsibility of creating a safe learning environment falls onto schools.

Title IX has been around since the 1970s, but in recent years it has been increasingly applied to sexual assault. Under Title IX, schools may even be accountable for off-campus assaults.

"So, for instance, if there is sexual violence at a party, or something like that, it's entirely possible that the victim of that kind of sexual violence will feel quite uncomfortable at school," Koski explained.

After reporting a sexual assault, if students and parents are unhappy with the actions of their school, they are able to file a complaint with the federal government. The Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education has the power to investigate schools for their handling sexual violence. Since 2014, those investigations are up more than 500 percent.

In one high-profile case at Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia, a teen girl says she was sexually assaulted by another student in an empty classroom. In her complaint to the Office of Civil Rights, she says that she was questioned by a school security officer after reporting the alleged assault.

He allegedly asked her, "What were you wearing? Why didn't you tell your mom ASAP? Are you sure you didn't want to have oral sex with him? Did you scream?"

The Gwinnett County Public School district repeatedly declined our requests for an interview, but last year, a representative told local TV news reporters that the investigation was conducted "fairly, thoroughly and promptly," and that they believed the act was consensual. Both the accused and the accuser were suspended for having sex on campus.

For her part, the girl filed a complaint against the district to the Office of Civil Rights, arguing that her suspension amounts to retaliation for coming forward about her assault. In an email to Youth Radio, the girl has a message for schools:

"My message is simple: It is your job to keep students safe. When a student comes forward and reports an assault, school officials must step up, provide support and take the report seriously."

This case is still under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights. Gwinnett County Public Schools has three open investigations for how they've handled sexual violence – among the highest of any school district in the country.

The Trump administration is changing how they handle these complaints. The Department of Education didn't respond to interview requests, but officials released a statement saying that the changes are meant to streamline investigations, which can currently take years. But critics argue that the administration is weakening requirements designed to protect schoolchildren and guard against systemic abuse, in a moment when sexual violence complaints in schools are on the rise.

This is a Youth Radio special report.

Copyright 2017 Youth Radio. To see more, visit Youth Radio.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Campus sexual assault complaints are on the rise in places you may not expect - elementary, middle and high schools. Just like with colleges, it's the responsibility of K through 12 schools to investigate complaints and protect students who are victims of sexual assault or harassment. Charlie Stuip has been looking into how well schools are doing this as part of a Youth Radio special report.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: On the motion to adopt the amendment on the board policy on sexual harassment. Director London?

JODY LONDON: Yes.

CHARLIE STUIP, BYLINE: I'm here at a school board meeting in Oakland, Calif., where there's a major vote about whether to change the school district's sexual harassment and assault policy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The motion is adopted.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

ANDREA ZAMORA: OK, so they just passed a policy. They all agreed to it. I feel like my hard work that we've all collaborated together has paid off.

STUIP: That's 17-year-old Andrea Zamora. She helped develop the new sexual harassment and assault policy with a local nonprofit. Before, Oakland had just one person at the district coordinating sexual assault and harassment complaints from 37,000 students. Now there will be a point person at each school. Zamora notices her mom quietly wiping away tears.

ZAMORA: I guess my mom got too excited.

STUIP: And now she is, too.

ZAMORA: 'Cause she's making me cry.

STUIP: Zamora got interested in how schools handle sexual harassment and assault after realizing how messed up it was that boys at her elementary school did something called Slap Ass Friday.

ZAMORA: The girls were, like, hiding, putting their butts behind the wall, and then the guys were kind of like trying to, like, hit them and get at them. The whole time that the girls - they were trying to, like, cover themselves, I guess.

STUIP: That happened to me in my middle school. I just remember, like, a little twerp 6th grader with his, like, hand out going, pah (ph). And it is kind of funny, like...

ZAMORA: Yeah.

STUIP: ...Looking at it, but then it's not.

Oakland's new policy is supposed to make the process of reporting and investigating student complaints super transparent, and to make sure adults know their responsibilities. Though training teachers is expensive. At big school districts, it can run a quarter-million dollars with no targeted funding from the federal government. Rori Abernethy, who taught math at Oakland High, wishes these changes came before she moved to a new school district last year.

RORI ABERNETHY: So I got burned out. I felt like I was doing more lawyering than teaching. And then that's a big reason why I left Oakland because I really want to teach.

STUIP: Abernethy says she regularly addressed student complaints of sexual harassment.

ABERNETHY: Just the day-to-day job of teaching is exhausting. But then you're stuck between a rock and a hard place because if another child comes and reports another incident, you can't just let it go. You know, you have to do something. That's somebody's life.

STUIP: It's also federal law, says William Koski, who runs the Youth and Education Law Project at Stanford University. He says it's all about Title IX, a law many associate with women in sports.

WILLIAM KOSKI: Title IX actually covers a surprisingly wide range of activities. It's an antidiscrimination statute. Sexual harassment, sexual violence, creating a hostile environment could be covered by Title IX.

STUIP: What counts as a hostile environment? Well, imagine sitting in second period history class next to a guy who assaulted you, running into that same guy alone in an empty hallway. That's where schools come in. They're responsible for creating a safe learning environment. Title IX has been around since the '70s, but in the last few years, there's been more focus on how the law is applied to sexual assault. Koski says it's even being used to hold schools accountable for assaults that happen off-campus.

KOSKI: So for instance, if there is sexual violence at a party or something like that, it's entirely possible that the victim of that kind of sexual violence will feel quite uncomfortable at school.

STUIP: If students or parents are unhappy with the way a school district handles their case, they can file a complaint with the federal government. The Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education has the power to investigate schools for their handling of sexual violence. Since 2014, those investigations are up more than 500 percent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Developing tonight in Gwinnett County, officials are responding to an alleged sexual assault at a school.

STUIP: In one high-profile case at Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia, a teen girl says she was sexually assaulted by another student in an empty classroom. She doesn't want her name or even voice to be public, so I asked another Youth Radio reporter to read from her complaint. Here she describes being questioned by a security officer after reporting the alleged assault.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Reading) What were you wearing? Why didn't you tell your mom ASAP? Are you sure you didn't want to have oral sex with him? Did you scream?

STUIP: The Gwinnett County Public School district repeatedly declined our requests for an interview. But last year, a representative told local TV news reporters that the investigation was conducted fairly, thoroughly and promptly, and they believed the act was consensual. The district suspended both the accused and the accuser for having sex on campus. For her part, the girl filed a complaint against the district to the Office of Civil Rights, arguing that her suspension amounts to retaliation for coming forward about her assault. In an email to Youth Radio, the girl has a message for schools.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Reading) My message is simple - it is your job to keep students safe. When a student comes forward and reports an assault, school officials must step up, provide support and take the report seriously.

STUIP: The Office of Civil Rights is still investigating her case, as well as two others from Gwinnett County. Three federal investigations into sexual violence in one school district is considered a lot. However, the Trump administration is changing how they handle these complaints. The Department of Ed didn't respond to requests for an interview, but released a statement saying changes are meant to streamline investigations, which currently can take years. But critics argue the administration is weakening requirements designed to protect school children and guard against systemic abuse at a time when sexual violence complaints in schools are on the rise. For NPR News, I'm Charlie Stuip.

CORNISH: And this special report was produced by Youth Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.