School Climate & Safety

School Sex Complaints to Federal Agency Rise—and Languish

By The Associated Press — May 15, 2017 4 min read
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Hector and Itza Ayala sat in a conference room at Houston’s prestigious high school for the performing arts, clutching a document they hoped would force administrators to investigate their 15-year-old daughter’s claim of a classroom sex assault.

It had been four months since the girl reported being attacked by another student. School district police had been notified, but administrators said they could do nothing else to protect her from the boy, who was still in school. Frustrated, Itza, a teacher in the district, scoured the internet for help.

A Google search led her to the website of the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

“As I read more and more,” she said, “I thought, ‘This is exactly what happened, this is exactly what they’re not doing. Somebody can help me!’”

Three years earlier, the office had issued detailed guidance on what schools must do upon receiving reports of student sexual violence in K-12 schools. An elaboration on years of legal and regulatory precedents, the guidance specified that a police investigation did not absolve a school from conducting its own review of whether a student’s right to an education free of sex discrimination had been violated.

That 2011 guidance triggered a conservative backlash but also a rise in the number of sexual violence complaints reaching OCR, as the office is commonly known. It did not, however, lead to widespread reforms.

Short-staffed, underfunded, and under fire, the office became a victim of its own success as it struggled to investigate the increase in complaints and hold school districts accountable. An Associated Press analysis of OCR records found that only about one in 10 sexual violence complaints against elementary and secondary schools led to improvements. And nearly half of all such cases remain unresolved—the Ayalas’ among them.

“The critique is that we’ve gone too fast. The reality is that we’ve gone too slow,” said Catherine Lhamon, the former head of OCR. “I am painfully aware of the kids we didn’t get to reach.”

Best known for ensuring gender equity in federally funded sports programs, Title IX became the government’s tool for cracking down on school sex assaults. In 2009, OCR began tracking sexual violence as a category of the sexual harassment it already was monitoring.

Five years later, the White House created a student sex assault task force and launched a website with prevention strategies and legal advice. Schools under investigation by OCR were publicly identified.

The backlash was fierce, especially in universities. Opponents said the education department was trampling the accused’s due process rights and subverting Congress by allegedly making new law.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ private foundation is helping fund a lawsuit aimed at dismantling the department’s sex assault guidance. During her January confirmation hearing, the billionaire Republican was asked whether she would support continued enforcement.

“It would be premature for me to do that today,” she responded.

Unlike the furor in Congress and on college campuses, the 2011 guidance received far less attention in K-12 school offices. Still, the public awareness campaign bore fruit, with the number of sexual violence complaints against secondary and elementary schools nearly doubling between 2012 and 2013, according to an AP analysis of OCR records. Between 2014 and late 2016, complaints increased roughly fourfold.

Anyone can file a complaint—victims, families, or school personnel—and the spike in complaints taxed an already stretched operation. It also delayed justice for some of the very students the administration sought to help.

Nearly half of the 275 sexual violence complaints filed from October 2008 to mid-November 2016—132—were unresolved, AP found. OCR doesn’t specify in its data if attackers are fellow students, but the Government Accountability Office in 2014 cited OCR officials as saying they received “many more” complaints of student attackers than adults.

Only 31 of the sexual violence complaints filed with OCR resulted in an agreement by a school district to make improvements like overhauling response protocols or paying for victims’ therapy. And no district faced the most extreme sanctions possible: a federal funding loss or Justice Department referral.

OCR noted that congressional funding had not kept pace with its caseload, which includes tens of thousands of civil rights complaints. Its 2017 budget is $107 million, slightly up from $91 million in 2007, OCR said, despite its caseload increasing 188 percent during that same time.

Tired of waiting or losing faith in both schools and the government, students who file sexual assault complaints sometimes turn to the courts, as the Ayalas did last year.

The couple’s daughter, whom the AP is not identifying because it does not name sexual abuse victims, had been ecstatic to enroll in Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which counts Beyonce among its alums.

A few weeks before her sophomore year in 2014, she was on campus helping with student orientation. Junior Sharif Stallworth pulled down her pants in an empty music room and, despite her protests, penetrated her with his finger, according to a police probable cause affidavit.

At Texas Children’s Hospital, the girl was diagnosed with “sexual abuse of child or adolescent, initial encounter,” according to medical records the family shared with AP.

Stallworth now awaits trial. His lawyer did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. School officials also did not respond to requests for comment, and it is not clear if the school took any action or changed any policies.

OCR would not comment on its investigation of the school’s handling of the incident, which began in March 2015, except to say it was ongoing.

The family, Itza Ayala said, wants accountability.

“It’s frustrating to see that the adults who were supposed to protect her and help us out didn’t do anything,” she said.

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