The U.S. Department of Education released updated guidance today to further explain the responsibilities of educational institutions to prevent, report, and respond to sexual abuse of students as a form of harrassment under Title IX. The release of the guidance, in the form of a question-and-answer update to a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, coincides with the announcement of recommendations from the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault.
While the White House effort is focused primarily on sexual assault in higher education, the guidance includes information that is also relevant at the K-12 level. This includes information about the obligations of elementary and secondary schools to respond to sexual abuse of students by school employees. From the guidance:
A school should take steps to protect its students from sexual abuse by its employees. It is therefore imperative for a school to develop policies prohibiting inappropriate conduct by school personnel and procedures for identifying and responding to such conduct. For example, this could include implementing codes of conduct, which might address what is commonly known as grooming—a desensitization strategy common in adult educator sexual misconduct. Such policies and procedures can ensure that students, parents, and school personnel have clear guidelines on what are appropriate and inappropriate interactions between adults and students in a school setting or in school-sponsored activities. Additionally, a school should provide training for administrators, teachers, staff, parents, and age-appropriate classroom information for students to ensure that everyone understands what types of conduct are prohibited and knows how to respond when problems arise."
You may recall that the Government Accountability Office released a report in February that said federal agencies aren’t doing enough to advise schools on preventing and reporting sexual abuse by staff. From my story on the report:
The report, released last week, depicts a fractured system of background checks that often fail to detect potential red flags, and divergent and sometimes conflicting policies between states and districts for reporting, investigating, and responding to suspected cases of sexual misconduct. While the U.S. departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services have resources to guide prevention efforts, none has taken a lead role in collecting data or coordinating a federal response, and many state and local agencies are unaware such guidance exists, the report says."
Because of few federal efforts to track student sex abuse by school personnel and because many cases go unreported, the number of incidents is unknown, but the problem is greater than most people realize, victim advocates have said. A 2004 report for the U.S. Department of Education found that nearly 9.6 percent of students are victims of sexual abuse by school personnel at some point in their education careers.
A 1998 investigative series by Education Week, updated in 2003, found that districts are often unprepared to identify and respond to such behavior because, unaware of its prevalence, they consider it a rare and idiosyncratic occurrence.
U.S. Representative George Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce who called for House hearings following the February GAO report, praised the updated federal guidance Tuesday:
Providing schools with clearer guidelines about their responsibility to protect students from sexual violence by school personnel, as the Department of Education has done with today's updated Title IX guidance, helps keep children safe. Children have a right to be safe in schools, and schools have a legal and moral obligation to fulfill that promise."
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.