Primary and secondary schools are educating our youth in more than academics. Research from the American Association of University Women reveals 48% of surveyed students in grades 7 – 12 experienced sexual harassment during their school year. According to RAINN, a national anti-sexual violence group, people ages 12 to 34 are at the highest risk for rape and sexual assault; the majority of victims are female. Given these statistics, school officials should be on the frontlines of keeping our kids safe. But as many young people and their advocates attest, when it comes protecting students from the trauma of sexual violence, teachers and officials in the education system have failed them at every level.
When Congress passed the Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX became law. This civil rights legislation forbids sexual discrimination in any education program or activity that receives Federal funding. While Title IX is often cited as helping to level the playing field between the sexes in sports, its mandates also apply to the thousands of public and private schools across the country that access public funding. The protections of Title IX extend to girls and women in kindergarten through college and are supposed to ensure that these students learn in environments free from sexual harassment and assault. In 2011, the Obama administration released guidelines intended to strengthen the application of Title IX provisions in schools. But across the United States, schools – and K-12 schools in particular – tend to inconsistently implement and adhere to Title IX. That is, if they follow the law at all.
Recent media reports profile increasing numbers of students whose sexual assault claims have been ignored, minimized or dismissed by school officials. The New York Timesreports that after being sexually assaulted, a 14-year-old student spent the remainder of her school year trying to convince the administration of the traumatic effects of her attack. While school officials investigated, the young woman had to endure seeing the perpetrator, another student, in the hallways. The district’s final report negated the girl’s claims, citing surveillance tape footage that showed her smiling a short time after seeing the accused student. Hearing this judgment, the young woman realized that rather than investigating her complaint, the school was investigating her.
This student’s experience echoes the reality of many sexual assault survivors: rather than receiving support and compassion, their claims are subject to suspicion or rejection and everything from their appearance to their behavior is scrutinized and, often, condemned. Sexual assault is an act of violence that unravels a victim’s safety net. Skepticism, scorn and rejection of survivors’ cries for help retraumatizes victims, spiraling them into isolation and fear. When student survivors do not feel safe in their schools – because they risk seeing the perpetrator, because they feel the administration has put them on trial – their grades decline, they skip classes, they drop out of school. The National Women’s Law Center points out that failure to obtain a high-school diploma puts girls and women at significant risk for economic insecurity and intergenerational poverty.
In 2018, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposed policies that would alter the implementation of Title IX standards. Champions of the revisions claim that the new rules would restore due process to accused students. Critics argue that the proposed changes would weaken protections for survivors while making it more difficult to hold schools accountable for their negligence in responding to and reporting incidents of sexual harassment and assault. Some states are taking initiative by adopting legislation aimed at prevention and accountability. To date, 35 states have enacted Erin’s Law, which requires K-12 public schools to implement child sexual abuse prevention programs. Lawmakers in Illinois are considering legislation that would strengthen schools’ child protection efforts and eliminate sexual predators from educational institutions’ payrolls.
Every child deserves to feel safe in school. When children can focus on learning, rather than survival, they are more likely to experience feelings of competence and value that, in turn, help them grow into healthy adults. Our attorneys are committed to advocating for safe schools where students can learn and thrive. If your school has failed to adequately address your claim of sexual assault, contact us to learn how civil law can help you obtain justice.
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