Federal

OCR to Review Policies Against Harassment

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 07, 2006 4 min read

The U.S. Department of Education’s new civil rights chief has put school districts on notice that protecting students from sexual harassment will be a top priority.

In one of her first acts as assistant secretary for civil rights, Stephanie Monroe recently informed school district leaders across the country that the department will launch a series of “compliance reviews” to evaluate how schools are dealing with sexual-harassment issues.

Ms. Monroe, a lawyer who spent 25 years working in the Senate as a counsel and staff member to various committees, was nominated by President Bush last summer and confirmed by the Senate in December.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter dated Jan. 25, Ms. Monroe commended efforts by many districts to deal with harassment issues, but wrote, “Unfortunately, a significant number of students are still subjected to sexual harassment, which can interfere with a student’s education as well as his or her emotional and physical well-being.”

In a phone interview, Ms. Monroe said she wanted to re-emphasize the commitment of the Education Department’s office for civil rights to “investigate and remedy sexual harassment issues through Title IX.”

Following Up

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is the law barring sex discrimination in federally funded schools and colleges. Ms. Monroe attached to her letter the Education Department’s extensive guidance, released in January 2001, on sexual harassment of students by other students or by school employees.

That guidance was largely meant to interpret U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the late 1990s holding that schools could be held liable for monetary damages in lawsuits if they failed to adequately respond to sexual harassment of students.

Bias Complaints

The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights received 5,044 complaints in the 2004 federal fiscal year.

*Click image to enlarge

22ocr sm

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

Ms. Monroe said the decision to conduct compliance reviews was not driven by an increase in sexual-harassment complaints to the OCR. Instead, she said, the reviews will follow up on a series of earlier reviews by the office, which found that many schools lacked grievance procedures for victims of sexual harassment.

“One of the things we want to do is make sure that there is a point of contact at every school where people know they can go to file a grievance,” Ms. Monroe said. “We don’t dictate what that process has to look like … but it’s important that every school have one.”

In the 2004 federal fiscal year, the most recent for which statistics have been analyzed, the OCR received 5,044 discrimination complaints of any type. Of those, 283, or 6 percent, were allegations of sex discrimination. Most complaints to the office were based on allegations of disability discrimination. (See chart, this page.)

Ms. Monroe said that the civil rights office had not yet decided how many compliance reviews will be done, or which school districts will be targeted.

OCR officials will likely interview students and school employees at campuses and look at whether schools have grievance procedures, the types of complaints filed, and how those were handled, said Samara Yudof, an Education Department spokeswoman.

One lawyer who advises districts on Title IX matters said school administrators should be prepared for a thorough evaluation and have updated anti-harassment policies that reflect a range of issues, including harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“If I was advising a school district, I’d tell them to have a policy that’s current, covers the categories that should be covered, and make sure that teachers and staff are well trained on the policy,” said Lisa Soronen, a staff lawyer with the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

Peggy Burns, a lawyer for a suburban district in Colorado, said she and other administrators made sexual-harassment prevention a top priority several years ago.

One of the most important things the district did, Ms. Burns said, was to simplify the grievance process so that victims would be less intimidated by filing complaints.

“Students know they can go to any adult in the district and tell them what’s happening and that the complaint will go to their principal for investigation,” said Ms. Burns, the staff counsel for the 36,000-student Adams 12 Five Star district, which serves five cities north of Denver. “We don’t insist on a written report; instead, we ask questions and follow an investigative template to get as full a report as we can from the children.”

Barrier to Learning

Another change, Ms. Burns said, was training every level of employee, whether a teacher or a bus driver, to watch for evidence of harassment and report it. Most students’ harassment complaints in the district are allegations against other students.

“This is just critical because these are the people who are around students the most and are in a position to see when something is not right,” she said.

The district’s changes, Ms. Burns said, have actually driven up the numbers of complaints that principals receive, a positive development in her view.

Ms. Burns said she was heartened by Ms. Monroe’s letter, but wondered why she highlighted sexual harassment. “I would have liked [Ms. Monroe] to emphasize that any harassment on constitutional grounds, whether it’s racial, religious and so on, is a barrier to learning,” she said.

Events

Student Well-Being Webinar Boosting Teacher and Student Motivation During the Pandemic: What It Takes
Join Alyson Klein and her expert guests for practical tips and discussion on how to keep students and teachers motivated as the pandemic drags on.
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
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Holistic Approach to Social-Emotional Learning
Register to learn about the components and benefits of holistically implemented SEL.
Content provided by Committee for Children
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
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Principals Can Support Student Well-Being During COVID
Join this webinar for tips on how to support and prioritize student health and well-being during COVID.
Content provided by Unruly Studios

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Interdisciplinary STEAM Specialist
Smyrna, Georgia
St. Benedict's Episcopal School
Interdisciplinary STEAM Specialist
Smyrna, Georgia
St. Benedict's Episcopal School
Arizona School Data Analyst - (AZVA)
Arizona, United States
K12 Inc.
Software Engineer
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association

Read Next

Federal Biden Legal Team Steps Back From Trump Stance on Transgender Female Sports Participation
The Education Department's office for civil rights pulls a letter that said Connecticut's transgender-inclusive policy violates Title IX.
4 min read
Bloomfield High School transgender athlete Terry Miller, second from left, wins the final of the 55-meter dash over transgender athlete Andraya Yearwood, far left, and other runners in the Connecticut girls Class S indoor track meet at Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn on Feb. 7, 2019. Transgender athletes are getting an ally in the White House next week as they seek to participate as their identified gender in high school and college sports. Attorneys on both sides say they expect President-elect Joe Biden’s Department of Education will switch sides in legal battles that could go a long way in determining whether transgender athletes are treated by the sex on their birth certificates or by how they identify.
Bloomfield High School transgender athlete Terry Miller, second from left, wins over transgender athlete Andraya Yearwood, far left, and other runners in an event in New Haven, Conn. The two transgender athletes are at the center of a legal fight in Connecticut over the participation of transgender female athletes in girls' or women's sports.
Pat Eaton-Robb/AP
Federal Congress Again Tries to Pass Eagles Act, Focused on School Shootings After Parkland
A group of bipartisan Congressional lawmakers is once again trying to get a law passed aimed at preventing school violence.
Devoun Cetoute & Carli Teproff
2 min read
Suzanne Devine Clark, an art teacher at Deerfield Beach Elementary School, places painted stones at a memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2019 during the first anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Suzanne Devine Clark, an art teacher at Deerfield Beach Elementary School, places painted stones at a memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2019 during the first anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Federal Some Districts Extend Paid Leave Policies as They Hope for Passage of Biden Relief Plan
With federal provisions having expired, some school employees have had to dip into their own banks of leave for COVID-19 purposes.
5 min read
Linda Davila-Macal, a seventh grade reading teacher at BL Garza Middle School in Edinburg, Texas, works from her virtual classroom at her home on Aug. 31, 2020.
A teacher leads a virtual classroom from her home.
Delcia Lopez/The Monitor via AP
Federal President Biden Is Walking a 'Careful Tightrope' When It Comes to School Reopenings
CDC guidance and confusion over his rhetoric turn up the pressure, and could overshadow progress in schools and nuanced public opinion.
9 min read
President Joe Biden answers questions during a televised town hall event at Pabst Theater in Milwaukee on Feb. 16, 2021.
President Joe Biden answers questions during a televised town hall event in Milwaukee earlier this month.
Evan Vucci/AP