School Climate & Safety

School Sex Complaints to Federal Agency Rise—and Languish

By The Associated Press — May 15, 2017 4 min read

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.

Related Tags:

Copyright 2017 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Former NRA President Promotes Gun Rights at Fake Graduation Set Up by Parkland Parents
A former NRA president invited to give a commencement address to a school that doesn’t exist was set up to make a point about gun violence.
Lisa J. Huriash, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
2 min read
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, speaks during the CPAC meeting in Washington on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2010.
David Keene, the former president of the NRA, promoted gun rights in a speech he thought was a rehearsal for a commencement address to graduating students in Las Vegas. The invitation to give the speech was a set up by Parkland parents whose son was killed in the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP
School Climate & Safety Opinion The Police-Free Schools Movement Made Headway. Has It Lost Momentum?
Removing officers from school hallways plays just one small part in taking down the school policing system.
Judith Browne Dianis
4 min read
Image of lights on police cruiser
Getty
School Climate & Safety Spotlight Spotlight on Safe Reopening
In this Spotlight, review how your district can strategically apply its funding, and how to help students safely bounce back, plus more.

School Climate & Safety Video A Year of Activism: Students Reflect on Their Fight for Racial Justice at School
Education Week talks to three students about their year of racial justice activism, what they learned, and where they are headed next.
4 min read
Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
David Zalubowski/AP