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.”
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.
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
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.