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Sex Abuse Investigation in Chicago a 'Wake-Up Call' for All Schools, Feds Say

The Chicago district has agreed to federal oversight to reform how it handles students complaints of sexual harassment and assault, part of its response to a searing federal report that documents a complete breakdown of its systems for protecting young students from harm.

The agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights is the culmination of what OCR officials say is the most comprehensive Title IX investigation it has ever conducted in a large, urban school setting. The investigation ultimately included a review of 2,800 student-on-student complaints of sexual harassment and 280 complaints from students about adult conduct in the district over the last decade.

Even as education watchers nationally mulled over the implications of the agreement for Chicago, school districts nationally will need to take a different question to heart: In the wake of the #MeToo movement and increased public attention to sexual harassment, is Chicago's failure to protect students truly an outlier—or a harbinger of things to come?

"Over the last several years, Americans have become increasingly aware of sexual violence on college and university campuses. This case may be a wake-up call that the problem exists on elementary and secondary campuses as well," said Kenneth Marcus, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department.  "This is something we cannot stand for, cannot tolerate."

Anatomy of a Failure

Chicago officials quickly pointed to comprehensive reforms the district has undertaken since last June, many of which are also required under the terms of the federal agreement.

"We have left no stone unturned and taken significant steps toward improving Title IX compliance," schools CEO Janice Jackson wrote in a letter to parents, community members, and staff. "We will not be satisfied until I and every CPS parent believes we have created a safe and supportive district culture."

Even so, some of the features of the resolution could have fallout for months. For example, the resolution requires the district to sanction employees who allegedly knew about sexual harassment of students and didn't try to stop it, including through demotion or firing.

Two complaints to the OCR prompted the investigation, both from young women in high school, one alleging that a teacher had escalated in inappropriate behavior and ultimately forced oral sex on her. In the other complaint, a student on her way home from school said she was surrounded by a group of boys, some she recognized from school, who then raped her inside a vacant building.

But the OCR investigation turned up thousands of other incidents. Many of those complaints involved horrifying accounts of students being touched or assaulted against their will, being threatened with violence for reporting those incidents, students exposing their genitals to other students, and the social media distribution of sexually explicit images and videos of some students by others. In some cases, teachers and other adults were found to have groomed students for sex or otherwise harassed them.

The district's responses to such complaints were incomplete and haphazard. In some cases it failed to investigate; in others, it failed to communicate the results to the students or their families, or to provide emotional and educational supports to the students.

For nearly two decades—from 1999 to 2018—the district did not have a Title IX coordinator, the investigation found, instead requiring each school to track reports of harassment on its own. When it designated a coordinator in December 2018, that person also handled the district's responses to private lawsuits and complaints dealing with alleged sexual harassment—a conflict of interest. And the Chicago district's law department did not systematically investigate complaints of allegations of employee sexual misconduct. 

By the time of Thursday's agreement, many of those problems had been well documented in an investigative report by the Chicago Tribune. The project documented more than 500 alleged incidents of sexual assault or abuse of students, including many reportedly perpetrated by employees. 

Resolution Details

The resolution requires the district to totally overhaul its Title IX structure, document how it responds to all Title IX complaints, create a new grievance procedure and policy, and provide annual training for staff on those new policies and procedures. It must sanction employees who failed to take appropriate action in response to student complaints, it says. And it must provide a process for complainants , since 2016, who believe the district mishandled their complaints to refile them.

In her letter, Jackson pointed to reforms the district instituted in the wake of the Tribune's reporting Now the city has re-conducted background checks of all staff, vendors, and volunteers, retrained staff, created a Student Bill of Rights, and created a centralized Title IX office. Still, problems persist: In July, the city school board's Office of Inspector General said it had received hundreds of complaints of sexual misconduct in the previous nine months.

Marcus, the assistant secretary, said the department was "pleased" with those steps. "Nevertheless, it is clear there is a great deal more they need to do," he said.

All Eyes on ED

Potentially, the resolution could be viewed as a litmus test of how far the agency is willing to enforce the sexual harassment and assault components in Title IX. That's an important for an administration that many critics say has either looked the other way on Title IX issues—or actively worked to undermine the law. 

One of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy De Vos' first moves at the agency was to rescind Obama-administration guidance directing schools to apply Title IX's sex-discrimination language to transgender students. More recently, independent reports have found that the number of OCR corrective actions flowing from LGBTQ-related complaints have dramatically fallen under DeVos' watch.

She has also sought to change Title IX policy on campuses—for instance, unveiling proposed regulations that would significantly change the standard colleges use to decide whether an allegation of sexual misconduct against a student has merit.

On at least one matter, though, the agency's message is proving consistent. And that is that sexual harassment and sexual violence are on an upswing in America's schools.

Marcus said that the OCR has seen a "steady and substantial" increase in sexual harassment and violence claims over the past decade.

And in a separate study issued just weeks ago, the statistical wing of the department found that schools reported significantly higher rates of sexual violence—from three to five percent from 2015-16 to 2017-18.

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