By guest blogger Gina Cairney
A federal investigation of a California school district has revealed a pervasive environment of sexual harassment and assaults by students in the district's elementary and secondary schools, the U.S. Department of Education said this week.
The investigation, initiated by the department's office for civil rights, also concluded that school officials of the 30,000-student West Contra Costa school district in Richmond, Calif. failed to sufficiently address the issues that contributed to a hostile environment at its schools, according to the statement.
In addition to sexual harassment, evidence of verbal and physical conduct by students included "unwelcome touching, demands for sexual favors, and the use of sexually derogatory language."
Students were also subjected to sexual harassment by district employees, the investigation found.
As a result, the civil rights office entered into an agreement with the school district, to help it address and prevent instances of sexual harassment and sexual violence within its schools, as required by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972—a law guaranteeing equal gender treatment.
"Although the district frequently reported known incidents of sexual assaults to law enforcement for prosecution," Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement, the district "did not fully comply with its legal obligations under Title IX" to eliminate and prevent such incidents.
The investigation began in March 2010, according to a Nov. 6 letter from federal officials to Superintendent Bruce Harter, but the Contra Costa Times reports it's unclear if the investigation was prompted by a 2009 incident in which a 15-year-old female student was gang-raped at Richmond High School.
The OCR investigation also cited other past incidents, according to the Contra Costa Times, including a rape in October 2008 at Pinole Valley High School, and a 2009 sexual assault incident at Portola Middle School.
While the investigation is focused on a specific district in a specific state, educators and community members should avoid thinking about this as an "over there" problem.
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