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Responding to and Preventing Sexual Violence Must Be Higher Priority for K-12, Experts Tell Lawmakers

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While victims' advocacy groups have shone a spotlight on sexual violence on college campuses in recent years, responding to and preventing assault is also a problem in elementary and secondary schools, a panel of experts told a bipartisan congressional task force on sexual violence Thursday.

Congressional members who lead the task force also pressed Candice Jackson, who is the acting assistant secretary of civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, on the agency's decision to rescind and eventually replace Obama-era civil rights guidance on the obligations of schools, colleges, and universities to respond to complaints of sexual violence under Title IX. 

Some women's groups have said that decision will cause some schools to take their foot off the gas when it comes to paying attention to issues of sexual assault and harassment, which they have long overlooked. And issues of sexual violence and consent must be addressed at younger ages to ensure they are not problems by the time students enter college, said members of the panel.

"If higher education is facing an epidemic, then K-12 is facing an equally serious plague-like level of sexual violence that goes unabated," said Daniel Swinton, the vice president of the American Association of Title IX Administrators and a partner in a firm that consults with public schools on sexual violence response and prevention.

"Absent a crisis, law, or regulation," elementary and secondary schools don't often make it a priority to address sexual assault beyond training staff on basic mandatory reporting of child abuse, he said, calling for more action at the federal level to address the issues in schools.

Jackson said the Education Department's office for civil rights is currently investigating 149 complaints of sexual assualt and harassment at the K-12 level, 28 percent of which were filed since President Trump took office.

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, said survivors of assault at all levels, including college and K-12 students, "deserve a world where sexual violence is not dismissed, laughed off, or covered up."

She recounted an Alabama middle school that asked a special needs student, who had complained of an assault by a male fellow student, to serve as "bait," going into a bathroom with the boy so they could catch him in the act. The boy took her to a different restroom and assaulted her, Speier said.

A "culture of victim-blaming" is not only morally wrong, it also flies in the face of research that shows false reports of sexual assault are rare, she said.

Schools "must take an honest look at their processes" to ensure students know the process for reporting assault and harassment and that they have confidence those reports will be taken seriously, said Ann Hedgepath, interim vice president for policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women.

Seventy-nine percent of schools that teach students in grades 7-12 reported zero incidents of sexual harassment in 2013-14, the organization's analysis of the most recent federal data found. It's unlikely those schools had no incidents, Hedgepath said, because student surveys and other data sources show assault and harassment are much more common.

The organization has campaigned for stronger Title IX regulations and the passage of the Gender Equity in Education Act, a bill that would establish an office of gender equity in the Education Department, provide competitive grants to K-12 schools for prevention programs, and improve data collection related to sexual violence in education.

Title IX Guidance

Jackson— a victim of sexual assault who has apologized for comments she made to the New York Times that 90 percent of sexual assault "fall into the category of 'we were both drunk"—told lawmakers the Education Department planned to replace the Title IX guidance after a public comment period, during which it planned to seek input to ensure the resulting document would be "both supportive to survivors and fair to all involved parties."

Groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, which also spoke at Thursday's hearing, have said the Obama-era guidance led some colleges and universities to violate the due process rights of students accused of assault by failing to ensure they had a fair hearing before taking action.

"Too often, we've seen the disregard for the rights of victims of sexual violence replaced with disregard for the rights of the accused," Joe Cohn, FIRE's policy director told the task force.

Speier appeared visibly frustrated when Jackson wouldn't give her an estimated time table of when the Education Department planned to collect public comment and release new Title IX guidance.

"It is not an event, but a process, so it is under way," Jackson said.

Speier pressed Jackson on why interim guidance released by the department requires universities to allow appeals from accused students found to have committed assault, but does not require such appeals are allowed for accusers.

Speier also criticized the interim document's directive that schools are not required to use a lower standard of proof laid out in the Obama-era guidance in determining if assault claims are punishable.

Jackson said schools are still free to allow for appeals on both sides and to use that lower evidence standard, but the department wants to seek input before it determines if it should mandate those things on the federal level or leave them to local decisionmakers.

"We're taking the process very seriously, Jackson said.

Also Thursday, President Donald Trump nominated someone to take Jackson's place as the assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department. As Politics K-12 reportsKenneth L. Marcus is the founder and president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law who previously served as the staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and was delegated the authority of the assistant secretary for civil rights under President George W. Bush.

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