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In Reversal, Feds Seek to Revive DeVos-Era Questions About Sexual Misconduct by Educators

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 14, 2021 4 min read
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The Biden administration is seeking to restore questions about accusations of sexual misconduct by school staff to an upcoming Civil Rights Data Collection, after recently proposing to eliminate them, a move that drew high-profile criticism.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education said it planned to eliminate several questions from the nationwide data collection for the 2021-22 school year dealing with allegations of sexual assault and rape committed by educators and other K-12 staff.

However, in materials released Monday, the Education Department said it was withdrawing the proposed Civil Rights Data Collection and issuing a new one for public comment that includes those questions about alleged sexual misconduct by K-12 staff.

The department said it reversed course after “further reflection” but did not provide any additional explanation. News that the Biden administration wanted to stop collection information about such allegations stirred opposition from conservatives, who alleged that the move amounted to covering up these incidents in schools.

It is unusual for the department to withdraw and revise a proposed Civil Rights Data Collection before the end of an initial 60-day public comment window. In response to questions from Education Week about the department’s reasons for the reversal, an Education Department spokesperson did not address the issue directly. “The Department has reissued the proposed 2021-2022 Civil Rights Data Collection, with a new 60-day comment period, to allow for public comment on additional questions,” the spokesperson said.

Following the revision to the proposed data collection, the window for public comment has been extended until Feb. 11.

The questions asking districts for information about allegations of sexual misconduct by school staff, as well as outcomes related to these allegations, were included in the data collection by the Trump administration for the 2020-21 school year.

How schools respond to and seek to prevent sexual misconduct, including sexual assault and rape by staff, has been a controversial and painful topic in the K-12 world for years. In 2018, roughly 1 in 3 educational administrators said that an employee had reported a case of sexual assault or harassment to them, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey. However, the same survey found that the vast majority of educators did not think sexual harassment and assault was especially common in their workplace.

In 2019, Chicago Public Schools agreed to overhaul its policies governing its response to sexual violence and harassment, after a federal investigation found major shortcomings.

Due-process rules governing the circumstances in which teachers lose their jobs can also vary significantly by state.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made combating sexual assault and rape in schools, particularly incidents involving staff, a top priority. In an October 2020 statement about the 2017-18 Civil Rights Data Collection showing a rise in reported sexual assaults in K-12 settings, DeVos said, “We hear all too often about innocent children being sexually assaulted by an adult at school. That should never happen. No parent should have to think twice about their child’s safety while on school grounds.”

DeVos also spoke out in late November against the Biden Education Department’s proposal to strike the questions about allegations of sexual assault and rape by staff, calling the move “sickening.”

Many advocacy groups say the Civil Rights Data Collection, which normally takes place every two years, provides crucial data about troubling disparities across the nation’s public schools. It also represents a significant obligation for districts when it comes to the time and effort required to collect the data. And concerns have persisted for years about the accuracy of the data when it comes to things like school shootings and segregation.

Over the summer, citing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Education Department announced that it would conduct the data collection for the 2021-22 academic year, instead of sticking to the biennial cycle and waiting until 2022-23 to run the next CRDC. (The 2019-20 collection was delayed until the 2020-21 school year due to the pandemic.)

As revised on Monday, the data collection would now ask districts to detail the number of allegations of sexual assault, rape, or attempted rape by school staff at school that resulted in a staff member’s resignation or retirement before “final discipline or termination.”

The collection would ask similar questions about such allegations that led to a determination that the staff member was responsible; instances when the staff member was found not to be responsible; instances when the staff member’s culpability was still pending; and instances when the staff member was reassigned prior to final discipline or termination.

In other proposed changes, the 2021-22 data collection issued by the department last month would ask districts to count the number of students who consider themselves nonbinary with respect to gender. The proposal also wants districts to provide information about preschool discipline, teachers’ experience, and teacher certification.

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