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K-12 Schools Behind Colleges in Handling Sexual Assault Claims

By: Allan M. Siegel

The #MeToo era has been shaped by years of important legal victories, advocacy, and increasing awareness – from the spotlight which shone upon Clinton v. Jones (a case handled by CSCS’ own Partner Joseph Cammarata) to crucial improvements in civil and criminal laws the likes of DC’s recent Sexual Abuse Amendment Act.

The movement has also included considerable changes within the country’s schools, most notably under Title IX, and most publicized at the collegiate level, where sexual misconduct has long been an issue.

Although the U.S. Education Department is looking to again overhaul Title IX rules, the administrative disciplinary process deployed under the federal law have already sparked a significant rise in the adjudication of sexual misconduct claims in the #MeToo years, as well as more reports from students who know there’s a platform for their voices to be heard.

Sadly, the same cannot be said about the handling of sexual abuse and assault cases in K-12 schools.

NYT Highlights Students Traumatic Journeys

A recent article from the New York Times highlights how U.S. schools have long failed to properly address sexual assault and abuse involving our nation’s youngest students, and how newly proposed rule changes could hinder Title IX enforcement by K-12 schools, and allow schools to prioritize protection against liability rather than protecting students from harm and injustice.

In the article, educators and advocates discuss how Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ efforts to overhaul Title IX rules would have major implications for elementary, middle, and high school students. Here are a few of the most important issues:

  • What is Title IX? – Title IX is a federal civil rights law passed nearly 50 years ago. Among other things, it covers administrative policies for publicly funded schools when dealing with allegations of sexual assault, misconduct, harassment, and stalking among students and / or faculty. Amid a number of federal lawsuits, federal officials are looking to amend some components of Title IX to ensure fair and impartial proceedings.
  • Title IX & K-12 – Colleges receive the most attention when it comes to Title IX, despite the fact that there are far more K-12 students in the U.S. and that the Supreme Court decision which expanded Title IX to include student-on-student misconduct arose from a K-12 case. Statistics have shown major leaps in reported sexual violence and misconduct in K-12 systems, but administrators at these schools still shun standards on the basis that issues of a sexual nature are not as “prevalent” or as pressing an issue as they are on college campuses.
  • Proposed Rules & Potential Impact – As the NYT notes, the new rules would apply to elementary and secondary schools, which often have no rules when it comes to the adjudication of sexual assault and misconduct claims. While colleges will have to adjust current procedures when new Title IX rules pass, K-12 schools will need to create most of them entirely – and those schools, described as being “like the Wild West,” are “light years behind colleges” according to Public Justice. Additionally, some of the proposed rules would support ineffective policies already in place, like “live hearings” in which the credibility of accusers and accused can be attacked, and schools’ ability to use of a higher standard of evidence than what’s required in civil claims. Proposed regulatory changes would also only hold schools accountable for violations if they did nothing at all to address misconduct, or if they acted with “deliberate indifference.”
  • Scope of the Problem – With over 98,000 public K-12 schools educating roughly 50 million children (nearly 3x the number of college students), the problem of failing to meet obligations under Title IX are far-reaching. For minors, they can also have a profound impact on students, whose re-victimization by administrators can exacerbate the trauma of their underlying assault. Not only have K-12 schools shown an inability to properly handle allegations, advocates argue, they have also become notorious for engaging in conduct to conceal their ineptitude, often by creating an atmosphere that intimidates victims, and enables schools to avoid potential lawsuits rather than properly addressing claims.

As part of its plans to overhaul sexual assault guidelines under Title IX, the Education Department proposed rules which would require schools to handle complaints that are only “severe and pervasive,” and eliminate specific protocol for handling hostile environments for accusers. According to victims’ advocates, that offers schools an opportunity to decline investigation of claims that don’t implicate events on campus or a school’s programming, and re-victimize students

Advocates and educators challenging the proposed rule changes on the basis they would tie their hands when responding to sexual misconduct complaints are giving federal officials much to think about (over 100,000 comments’ worth to be exact). What the federal government will do with that feedback, however, will be something only time will tell.

Civil Lawsuits & Victims’ Fight for Justice

As educators and officials square off on finding effective Title IX strategies for schools, the fact remains that victims have the right to seek justice and accountability from schools and school systems that fail to protect students, prevent abuse or assault, and properly handle allegations. At Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel, P.C., our legal team helps victims and their families navigate the legal pathways to achieve just that.

CSCS has experience representing victims of sexual abuse and sexual assault in civil cases against wrongdoers, and the organizations and institutions which failed to uphold obligations for protecting them – including schools, religious entities, and powerful, high-profile figures. Our team is committed to justice and victims’ rights, and is available to help anyone with questions learn more about their options.

CSCS serves residents throughout the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. Call (202) 644-8303 or contact us online to request a FREE consultation.