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Justice Dept. Will Track Pa. District, Resolving Sexual Assault Cases

From guest blogger Nirvi Shah:

The Allentown, Pa., school district will have to take a number of steps to better prevent and address sexual harassment to resolve a federal investigation into how it handled the sexual assaults by a 5th grade student on 6- and 7-year-old schoolmates.

Under a proposed agreement today between the district and the U.S. Department of Justice, the district must develop new policies to address sexual harassment, agree to fully investigate alleged incidents of sexual harassment, and hire a consultant to oversee changes in the district. Those changes will include identifying spaces where sexual harassment or assault can occur and recommending procedures that ensure those places are monitored.

The consent decree resolves complaints from the 2003-04 school year in which a 12-year-old 5th grade student at Central Elementary School was accused of sexually assaulting several younger boys in a school bathroom. A proposed consent decree between the district and the Justice Department says that although the district was told about the assaults right after they occurred, the district either took no action or inappropriate action to keep them from happening again.

Allentown also agreed to pay four of the students who alleged they had been assaulted a total of $825,000, The Express-Times reported. The parents of some of the children sued the school district in 2006, and the Justice Department got involved in 2009, citing its role as defender of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1972. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights issued new guidance for districts on the handling of cases of sexual violence at school.

Allentown Superintendent Russell Mayo told WFMZ-TV in Allentown earlier this month that "the settlement is not an admission of guilt by any means at all."

"We're not even the same district now that we were eight years ago," he told the TV station about the 18,000-student district. "The key players in this whole episode are not even in the district. Many have retired, many have resigned, many have moved to other districts."

The consent decree requires monitoring by the Justice Department for three years. In addition to developing a new plan for addressing and preventing sexual harassment—which is defined as anything from unwelcome comments to rape—and hiring a consultant in the area of student-on-student harassment to draft and implement that plan, the district must:

• Train school employees and parents about sex-based harassment;
&bull ;Appoint district and school-based equity coordinators who will implement the district's harassment policies;
• Create procedures to identify, monitor, and supervise students with a confirmed history of sexual harassment toward other students;
• Develop and implement policies for communicating with outside agencies, such as police, hospital, and child protection agencies, about allegations of sexual harassment in the district; and
• Submit annual compliance reports to the Justice Department.

The Express-Times reported that the 12-year-old student was criminally charged with the sexual assault of one of his younger classmates and is in juvenile detention.

The Justice Department expects the consent decree to be approved soon. "In the meantime, the school district has already begun to implement the terms of the decree," said Anurima Bhargava, chief of the educational opportunities section of the civil rights division. "We expect that the policies and procedures as described in the consent decree will be in place by the 2012-13 school year."

In 2010, the department reached a similar agreement with the Metropolitan Nashville District in Tennessee. In that case, a student with disabilities was sexually assaulted by another student while riding a special education school bus operated by Davidson County.

The school district agreed to take a number of steps to enhance the security of students with disabilities on its public school transportation system, including bus monitors to assist drivers on all special education buses and setting up procedures to ensure that students with disabilities are not assigned to buses where they would be at risk of harassment. The county agreed to pay the family about $1.5 million as part of the settlement.

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