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Investigating Sexual Harassment in K-12 Schools

Schools are severely underreporting the prevalence of Title IX violations in K-12. Learn why this is happening and how we can stop it.

Posted by Katie Yahnke on March 15th, 2019

Sexual harassment in schools has always been perceived as a “higher ed problem”. And, due to increased attention on sexual harassment scandals at prestigious universities such as Harvard and UC Berkeley, this assumption is stronger than ever.

But, this type of misconduct exists at K-12 institutions too. It’s a hidden horror that school officials have been struggling with for decades.

This failure to acknowledge Title IX issues has led to bigger problems such as the lack of Title IX coordinators and procedures in K-12 schools. While post-secondary institutions have made great strides to tackle sexual harassment appropriately, K-12 has lagged behind.

But it’s not too late to make changes in your district. Learn why schools have not been investigating or reporting their figures, and how easy it is to become Title IX compliant.


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Title IX Violations in K-12

Sexual harassment and assault in school can occur between students, faculty staff, non-faculty staff and even outsiders. Anyone who spends time at the school, whether it is an adult or child, can be a victim of sexual misconduct.

Contrary to sensationalized media reports, students are assaulted by peers more often than they are by teachers. In fact, a study conducted by the Associated Press found that “for every adult-on-child sexual attack reported on school property, there were seven assaults by students”.

School is the second most common place, after the home, where children and young adults are sexually violated by their peers. “Unwanted fondling” is the most common report and occurs primarily in unsupervised locations such as the bus, bathroom, hallway or locker room.


Negative Effects on Victims & School Atmosphere

Endless studies have proven that sexual harassment has a negative effect on the victim and the entire school culture. Younger victims often experience isolation from friends and a lack of understanding from adults. The National Women’s Law Center found that one in three students who experienced harassment reported not wanting to go to school anymore, inevitably leading to more absences and poor academic performance.

Click here to watch Title IX Coordinator, Allison Boyle, outline best practices for investigators who conduct sexual harassment and discrimination investigations. 

The negative effects are amplified when schools don’t acknowledge Title IX issues. School officials who don’t investigate incidents of sexual harassment or assault send a message that victims should deal with problems on their own and that perpetrators will not be disciplined.

How Big of a Problem is Sexual Harassment and Assault in K-12?

So, just how many schools are ignoring these problems and how big are the problems they’re ignoring?

In 2011, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that 48 per cent of grade 7-12 students reported experiencing sexual harassment in the past year. However, only 21 per cent of grade 7-12 schools reported having any allegations of sexual harassment at all.

The AP study cited earlier uncovered 17,000 official reports of sexual assault in K-12 between fall 2011 and spring 2015. However, academics and state education officials estimate that the number is actually much higher and that there is an undercount for three reasons:

  • Many attacks go unreported by the victim and witnesses
  • Some states don’t track the number of reports they receive
  • Opinions vary on what acts are considered “sexual assault”

Only 32 states (and D.C.) track sexual assaults, and of those states, many only do so if the perpetrator was suspended or expelled.


2011 Policy from the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education

Some progress has been made in the past decade to force schools to acknowledge the issue. In 2011, the Office of Civil Rights from the Department of Education released a new policy detailing a school’s responsibility to address sexual violence.

Schools must investigate all allegations of sexual harassment. Download our free eBook to learn how case management software can help you do just this.

Soon after, the department received a flood of complaints from parents about how schools have failed to protect their children. The government responded by putting more pressure on schools to address Title IX issues in K-12 schools.

In the five years following the policy, the number of complaints received increased 277 per cent within K-12 schools and 831 per cent within higher ed institutions.

Why Are Incidents Underreported?

To start, the sexual harassment and assault laws differ for K-12 and higher ed schools. The Clery Act requires federally funded post-secondary institutions to track “campus crime statistics”, including incidents of sexual assault. K-12 is not required to do so under this act.

Higher ed and K-12 schools are often lumped together when confronting “school-related issues”. However, unlike college students, children and young adults in K-12 must have access to education by law. K-12 schools must also consider that the perpetrator’s age will impact how accountable they are for their actions.

These differing laws and differing requirements can make it confusing for school officials to know if they’re checking all the boxes.


No One Knows the Requirements

Most K-12 school officials don’t understand Title IX or how to comply with its requirements. School staff have received little (if any) training and are unable to navigate allegations, investigations or victim support. Add in conflicting definitions of sexual harassment, assault and violence, and the confusion is inevitable.

What’s left is victims refusing to file reports, states failing to track the ones they do receive, and cases of sexual misconduct wrongfully classified as bullying.

Title IX was enacted in 1972 and, in the near half-century since then, school officials have failed to understand the institution’s role in dealing with sexual harassment. But, the confusion is not entirely the fault of K-12 schools. Consider attempting to apply a policy for hundreds of thousands of students, from preschoolers to young adults, with varying intellectual and emotional development.


Schools are Unprepared and Ill-Equipped

Even if the requirements are clear, the average school district and school won’t have the time or resources to meet them. Title IX was developed with the average college in mind. The average college has between 5,000 and 15,000 students, one dedicated compliance officer and several attorneys.

By comparison, Union County Public Schools (UCPS) is the sixth-largest public school system in North Carolina and oversees more than 40,000 students. UCPS recently began using i-Sight to better manage employee policy violations and sexual harassment claims for the district.

Learn more about UCPS’s use of i-Sight here.

Most K-12 schools also lack qualified Title IX coordinators. The coordinators they do have are often uncertified, under-trained and are usually also a full-time teacher. This lack of training causes a massive underreporting of incidents. Students haven’t been made aware of the reporting process, teachers don’t know how to handle allegations and principals aren’t sure what’s considered a Title IX violation when the district asks for numbers.


School Officials are Ignoring the Problem

Many K-12 schools have adopted the “head in the sand” approach. Acknowledging incidents of sexual harassment, assault and abuse on school grounds means also acknowledging that the school has failed to provide a safe learning environment for students and staff.

For this reason, K-12 schools might intentionally make it hard for students to report incidents. Some schools go so far as to cover-up Title IX violations by not informing parents or failing to respond to a victim.

Unfortunately, a school failing to acknowledge a sexual harassment problem doesn’t make it stop or go away. Victims have long dealt with Title IX violations on their own but are now using the courtroom as a way to hold school officials accountable. This is bad news for school officials since lawsuits are much more expensive than a noncompliance citation.

Schools can avoid expensive lawsuits by complying with the requirements of Title IX to ensure safety for staff, students and the entire school community.

How Can K-12 Schools Change?

Higher ed institutions have been working to better handle Title IX violations involving students and/or staff. Why have we neglected to hold K-12 to the same standards? Should we not care even more about students under 18?

Want to know how you can improve overall school safety in eight easy steps? Find out here: K-12 School Safety Cheat Sheet.

If the end goal is to reduce the occurrence of Title IX violations in K-12 schools, the first step is to get an accurate measurement of its prevalence. This is done by establishing accountability, implementing more comprehensive and accurate procedures, administering training and raising awareness to all of those in the school community.


Establish Boundaries and Accountability

Set appropriate boundaries for student-student, student-teacher and teacher-teacher relationships. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection argues it is reasonable to ask staff to “sign an oath whereby they acknowledge their goal-oriented professional relationship and their privileged access to children”.

Develop a clear policy with examples of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Depending on the age of the students, and whether or not they could read your policy, it might be necessary to have school personnel explain the “hands to yourself” policy, or whichever it is that you choose to implement.


Implement Better Procedures

The solution lies partly in how K-12 schools and districts handle and report on cases. Schools can’t provide their district with accurate statistics of sexual harassment, abuse and assault without established procedures. There are far too many students, too many staff members and too many factors to consider.

An anonymous whistleblowing hotline is one mechanism that will encourage victims or witnesses to formally report allegations. i-Sight’s anonymous hotline is a great choice for schools looking to improve their incident reporting practices.

It’s not enough to just implement a reporting mechanism but then fail to follow through on reports received. Develop a procedure for handling reports received through the hotline and through other means. Investigate allegations, making sure to document evidence, interviews and any other pertinent information.


Administer Training

Training is critical for both students and school personnel.

There’s an ongoing debate over how young is too young to discuss sexual harassment, assault and abuse, and the warning signs with students. Sexual abuse prevention advocates argue that lessons need to be taught sooner than later, whereas those on the other side of the debate believe it’s confusing and even harmful to discuss with too young a child.

However, 35 states have passed Erin’s Law, requiring public K-12 schools to teach students how to report incidents of assault.

As for school personnel, educate them regularly about relevant school policies and procedures. Review the code of conduct often with an emphasis on appropriate relationships. Administer further training about Title IX and the schools’ commitment to child safety. Review the step-by-step procedures for handling and responding to reports of sexual harassment, assault and abuse.


Raise Awareness

Raise awareness in the school community about sexual harassment, abuse and assault in schools. Educate parents about the warning signs to look for in their child and how to make a report if they have concerns about their child’s wellbeing. A number of non-profit organizations provide free programs and training or can provide guidance on how to involve the community.

Since 2015, Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS) has advocated on behalf of K-12 students for their right to an education free from sexual harassment and assault. The non-profit creates free education programs, educates the media about sexual violence in school and works with communities to help schools become Title IX compliant.  SSAIS also launched the #MeTooK12 campaign in early 2018 to promote awareness about sexual harassment and violence in K-12 schools.

Katie Yahnke
Katie Yahnke

Marketing Writer

Katie is a former marketing writer at i-Sight. She writes on topics that range from fraud, corporate security and workplace investigations to corporate culture, ethics and compliance.

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