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What Betsy DeVos’ New Title IX Initiative on Sexual Assault Means for Schools

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 26, 2020 6 min read
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A new initiative from the U.S. Department of Education will conduct national reviews to study how K-12 schools and districts are handling sexual assault cases, and also attempt to raise awareness with parents and school leaders about the issue of sexual assault in schools.

The initiative, which U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced Wednesday, will also involve new “data quality reviews” by the department’s office for civil rights, in partnership with the National Center for Education Statistics. The two agencies “will work with districts to ensure that incidents of sexual assault/sexual offenses are being accurately recorded and reported” through the Civil Right’s Data Collection, according to an announcement from the department.

“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 said in a statement discussing the initiative. “We cannot rest until every student can learn in a safe, nurturing environment where their civil rights are protected.”

It’s not clear what this federal initiative means for the upcoming, much-anticipated rules about sexual harassment and assault the Trump administration is due to release for Title IX, which covers both K-12 and higher education. In 2017, DeVos revoked Obama-era guidance about sexual assault at schools and college campuses, and put in interim guidance as a placeholder while crafting a new policy “that better serves students and schools.”

In 2018, DeVos released a proposed rule for Title IX that, as we reported at the time, “allows schools to raise the bar on what evidence is needed to prove claims of sexual assault and harassment.” The final rule is still pending and is expected to be made public soon. One key question for schools is what standard of evidence is used to determine if an assault has taken place, and what should happen to the victim and the perpetrator.

In general, DeVos has said that she wants to strike a balance between condemning sexual violence and punishing perpetrators, while also ensuring a fair process for addressing allegations and for the accused. However, schools may face many challenges in helping students who want to report an act of sexual violence, and there are also questions about the quality of schools’ reporting on the issue. Data from the 2013-14 federal Civil Rights Data Collection found, for example, that three-quarters of schools reported zero incidents of sexual harassment in grades 7-12.

In her Wednesday announcement, DeVos also cited how two sexual harrassment complaints in Chicago schools were handled as an example of “systemic and significant deficiencies” that required federal follow-up and an investigation.

‘A Middle Ground’ on Title IX?

What the new initiative could signal is that the upcoming Title IX regulations will cover higher education but not K-12 schools, said Julia Martin, the legislative director at the Brustein and Manasevit law firm in Washington who focuses on education policy. Martin noted that there’s no mandate that such regulations cover both, and said that it would be odd to announce this initiative and then shortly afterward release final Title IX rules that cover K-12 as well as higher education.

“This might represent a middle ground,” Martin said. “This all seems like something you do when you’re not planning to regulate.”

She also noted that in contrast to the student-on-student sexual violence that’s the primary concern on college campuses, there’s a particular focus in the initiative on cases of sexual assault that involve school staff and personnel. That’s likely a nod to parents, Martin said, adding that such incidents are frequently “the thing they’re most concerned about, particularly with younger students.”

While the initiative represents “an attempt at a good faith attempt” to address the issue, it focuses more on adults in schools but shies away from dealing with peer-to-peer situations, said Shael Norris, the founding executive director of SafeBAE, which aims to end sexual assault among middle and high school students.

“No one wants to think about kids in a sexual context at all,” Norris said.

She said that what schools truly need is detailed guidance from the federal government that lays out expectations and consequences for these situations in schools. She pointed to a Ball State University study showing that more than three-quarters of high school principals said their schools don’t have policies for addressing teen dating violence. Those that do, according to Norris, often are long on legalese and short on trauma-informed practices.

“We need robust sexual-assault-response policies. We need anonymous reporting tools,” Norris said.
Know Your IX, a group that aims to end sexual and dating violence in schools, was pointedly unimpressed with the initiative:

Here’s a more detailed list of what the new initiative will entail, published by the department:

  • Compliance Reviews: OCR will conduct nationwide compliance reviews in schools and districts, examining how sexual assault cases are handled under Title IX, including sexual incidents involving teachers and school staff. OCR will work with school districts to identify and correct compliance concerns.
  • Public Awareness and Support: OCR will focus on raising awareness of the issue of sexual assault in K-12 schools, including making information available to educators, school leaders, parents and families.
  • Data Quality Reviews: OCR will conduct Data Quality Reviews (DQRs) of the sexual assault/offenses data submitted by school districts through the federal data collection. As a part of conducting these reviews, OCR will partner with the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and will work with districts to ensure that incidents of sexual assault/sexual offenses are being accurately recorded and reported through the data collection.
  • Proposed CRDC Data Collection: OCR has proposed, for the 2019-20 data collection, to collect more detailed data on sexual assault. The proposed data collection includes incidents perpetrated by school staff or school personnel. If adopted, the inclusion of this data would make the CRDC collection the first universal collection to gather such data systemically by school.

The provision about new data collection for 2019-20 regarding sexual assault was announced by the department last year.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., praised the initiative, saying in the statement that, “Parents deserve to know that when their kids go to school each day, they are going to be in a safe environment where they will not be preyed upon.”

The Title IX announcement represents the second time this year DeVos has announced a new initiative regarding education civil rights. In January, her department announced a plan to address the “inappropriate” use of restraint and seclusion in classrooms.

Photo: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visits a class at Greater Johnstown Elementary School in Johnstown, Pa., on March 26. (John Rucosky/The Tribune-Democrat via AP)

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