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When Students Say #MeToo, Schools May Be Unprepared to Help

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If students speak up about sexual assault, are their schools ready to help them?

Some researchers and advocates say there are too many barriers for students to seek assistance in such a vulnerable situation, and those concerns are being stoked anew amid a tumultuous Supreme Court confirmation process that has been complicated by allegations of sexual assault from three women.

Since the start of the the #MeToo movement in 2017, educators and parents have watched to see how students would respond to resulting conversations about consent and power.

And now the allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have brought those questions into even sharper focus. Because the three allegations, which Kavanaugh has categorically denied, center on events that the women said occured when the parties were in high school and college, the surrounding discussions are likely to resonate with students.

Victims' advocacy groups report a spike in calls from women of all ages who've survived sexual assault and rape in recent weeks, crediting public conversations with giving people the courage to seek help. But, regardless of the credibility or consequence of the allegations against Kavanaugh, those groups are concerned that young people may receive harmful messages from the surrounding debate about what constitutes an assault, the role of alcohol, what consequences perpetrators should face, and whether they will be believed if they report their own stories to trusted adults.

If Students Share Reports of Sexual Assault, Are Adults Able to Help?

In some schools, students may face confusing obstacles as they determine where and how to share concerns about sexual misconduct by their peers, researchers and advocates say.

Even if they are victimized outside of school, sexual assault, the spread of naked photos through text messages, or other kinds of harmful activity, can have significant effects on students' educational experience. In lawsuits, girls have reported that their schools stood by as they became the target of jokes and harassment among their peers, or asked them to transfer them to another school to alleviate the school climate concerns that resulted from alleged assaults.

In a gripping opinion piece in the Washington Post, writer Elizabeth Bruenig details the story of a high school classmate who reported she was raped by two athletes at a weekend party and later returned to school to find offensive messages about her scrawled on classmates' car windows and painted on a school wall. That classmate, Bruenig wrote, was moved to an alternative school while the two boys she said raped her remained at the school. 

Under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, students can ask schools to address the fallout of a sexual assault, even if it occured off campus. 

"In particular, when sexual misconduct is so severe, persistent, or pervasive as to deny or limit a student's ability to participate in or benefit from the school's programs or activities, a hostile environment exists and the school must respond," the U.S. Department of Education wrote in interim guidance in September 2017.

In the 1999 Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the family of a 5th-grade girl who argued that her school district had violated her right to equal educational opportunities when it did not adequately respond to sexual harassment from another student.

Responses to a student's concerns might include moving peers who harass her to another class or taking other steps to protect her sense of safety, groups like the National Women's Law Center have said. Those groups fear that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' efforts to revise federal civil rights guidance on sexual assault on college campuses could have a trickle down effect of allowing K-12 schools to take their foot off the gas in responding to these concerns.

What's a Title IX Coordinator?

While she has plans to revise some Title IX guidance, DeVos has left in place an Obama-era call for K-12 schools to ensure that they have appointed, trained, and publicized Title IX directors, who are charged with remedying and documenting complaints about sexual discrimination. Districts are required to have a Title IX coordinator, and larger systems may have campus-level coordinators at each school.

The coordinator's contact information should be regularly shared and posted in schools, the document says, and they should have a visible role "to ensure that members of the school community know and trust that they can reach out to the Title IX coordinator for assistance."

But school districts often toss around the role of Title IX director "like a hot potato" and put very little effort into training and supporting staff members who take on the task, said Elizabeth Meyer, an associate professor of education at University of Colorado, Boulder.

And students and their families often don't know who their Title IX coordinator is—or that the role exists at all, she said.

"If I was a student or a parent of a student who had experienced sexual harassment or assault, how difficult would it be to find this information?" Meyer said. "Oftentimes, 'Title IX coordinator' is not part of their official job title... and [which employee takes on the role] is not consistent across school districts."

Meyer and a team of other researchers looked at districts in Colorado and California and found it was often difficult, or impossible, to locate Title IX coordinators on district websites, and sometimes that information was out-of-date.

They did follow-up interviews with coordinators in eight districts of different enrollment sizes and found the role had been assigned to a variety of staff members, including administrators, superintendents, and athletic directors. Coordinators reported a lack of training and very little guidance about how to fulfill the job. One said she turned to Google to understand her legal mandate. Several respondents said they didn't know the coordinator role was part of their positions until they'd been on the job for more than six months.

Most interview subjects saw the task as one of compliance and responding to complaints rather than taking active steps to create a safe school environment, Meyer said. And some associated Title IX largely with gender equity in athletics.

"It shouldn't just be about legal compliance and reporting," Meyer said. "What can we do to reduce the harm, to reduce the barriers, to make sure that the student can still continue to learn?"

A Teachable Moment About Consent?

Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, an organization that has sought to encourage Title IX compliance, has said that conversations surrounding events like the Kavanaugh confirmation may affect vulnerable young people who are trying to process difficult events like assault.

President Donald Trump said one of Kavanaugh's accusers, Christine Blasey Ford, couldn't be believed because she waited years to share her claims that the judge had assaulted her at a high school party. If her story was true, Trump said, she surely would have filed a criminal complaint at the time.

The organization responded by calling attention to the "barriers assault victims face."

Teaching Consent

The Kavanaugh confirmation comes as many schools have already undergone efforts to rethink sex education, expanding their focus to include consent and personal decisionmaking, as Education Week's Lisa Stark reports in this piece for PBS Newshour. Stark visited Georgetown Day School, which is not the same as Kavanaugh's high school, Georgetown Preparatory School.

Photo: Getty Images


Related: 

Opinion: When Sexual Assault Allegations Hit the News, How to Talk to Students

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