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January/February 2019

Student sexual harassment: What school board leaders need to know

By Patrick Rice, Theresa Robinson, Nakia Hall, Pam Manning, and David E. Bartz
Patrick Rice, Ph.D., is a director of field services and director of equity with IASB. Theresa Robinson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of education at Elmhurst College. Nakia Hall, Ed.D., is a board member for Crete-Monee CUSD 201U and works through Executive Order Leadership Development. Pam Manning, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of education at McKendree University. David E. Bartz Ph.D ., is professor emeritus at Eastern Illinois University.

When considering the safety of their students, many school districts focus on the challenge of school violence and particularly school shootings, and with good reason, evidenced by multiple school shootings throughout the United States.

Nevertheless, school boards and administrators need to know that there are equally pressing issues that must be addressed, including the escalating problem of sexual harassment of students.

Most school leaders are familiar with the “Good Touch, Bad Touch” program which focuses on how to prevent unwanted sexual contact. School districts promote awareness programs such as this as part of the understanding of their role in being safe havens for students. Schools should be a place where students can find a trustworthy adult to assist students with safety concerns.

Unfortunately, more and more school districts are confronted with the fact that district employees who are expected to keep students safe have been either accused or found guilty of sexual misconduct toward students. How prevalent is this problem? It seems to be an escalating problem nationally. Where figures are available, the Texas Education Agency reported that it investigated over 162 incidents of alleged inappropriate teacher-student relationships between September 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016, with at least 188 reported in 2017. There have been widely-reported cases in the past few years in New Jersey, Oregon, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, New York, and Arkansas.

The Illinois State Board of Education maintains information on teacher license revocations for disqualifying criminal offenses, without indicating the specific misconduct. We do know that one incident is too many, and in Illinois, there have been cases reported in the media in both 2017 and 2018.

Due to these safety concerns involving sexually inappropriate contact toward students, we encourage all educators, policymakers, students, parents, and community stakeholders to do their due diligence in making sure all students are safe from all threats to their social and emotional well-being either internal or external.

What do school boards and school administrators need to know? School administrators and board members must first know that illicit sexual contact between a minor and an adult is a criminal act. The Illinois State Board of Education’s Code of Ethics for Illinois Educators also provides conduct standards for Illinois Educators (see link information on page 12).

And, school districts need to be aware of criminal and civil laws protecting all students. Untrained school officials that do not understand these laws increase legal risks to their school district employers.

To help ensure students are safe in schools from sexual abuse and to help protect staff from sexual allegations, the following six steps should be reviewed by school boards and administrators.

1. Know and understand Title IX

School administrators and board members must know and understand all laws in this area but particularly Title IX, and must provide training to faculty, staff, students, and other appropriate stakeholders through appropriate meetings and professional development opportunities.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”) is a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions, programs, and activities that receive federal financial assistance. The law applies to any academic, extracurricular (student organizations and athletics), research, occupational training, and other educational programs from pre-school to graduate school that receives or benefits from federal funding. School districts fall under Title IX even if only one program or activity receives federal funds.

Sexual harassment is a serious problem for students at all educational levels. Students in elementary and secondary schools can be victims of sexual harassment. This problem is more common than people may think because many students are scared or embarrassed to report sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can include requests for sexual favors or unwelcome sexual behavior that is bad enough or happens often enough to make a student feel uncomfortable, scared or confused, and that interferes with schoolwork or the ability to participate in extracurricular activities or attend classes.

2. Know and understand the board’s policies and procedures that address sexual misconduct

When administrators and board members put sexual harassment policies and procedures in writing, administrators have documentation to refer to if there is a change in administration or board transition. Policies and procedures become an official reference for all and support the school district’s ability to apply consistent procedures in the investigative and decision-making process. In addition to meeting ISBE’s Code of Ethics for Illinois Educators, there are several policies district leaders should consider enacting ,   reviewing, and/or monitoring, including but not limited to:

  • General policies on sexual harassment

  • Details on how an individual can report sexual harassment claims, including the filing of confidential reports

  • Details regarding mandated reporting of sexual harassment

  • Provisions regarding retaliations made against sexual harassment claims (e.g. whistleblower protections)

  • Violations regarding sexual harassment

  • Policies regarding the investigative process

  • Penalties for false allegations

  • Appropriate student and teacher contact, including verbal and physical contact and improper electronic communications

  • Policies recommending appropriate professional development regarding sexual crimes

  • Appropriate dress code for students and staff members

3. Screen and background check educators before hiring

School districts must check references and conduct background checks.

The School Code requires school districts to perform a fingerprint-based criminal history records check through the Illinois State Police (ISP) for an individual’s Criminal History Records Information (CHRI) and the FBI’s national crime information databases. A 2018 addition to the School Code, through PA 100-718, establishes authority for the ISP to collect fees from the district if it wishes to participate in a newly-available Federal Rap Back Service. Rap Back Service is a capability of the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) system.

Screening involves checking an individual’s name and address against publicly-available databases and information provided for local law enforcement such as the Illinois Sex Offender Registry and the Violent Offender Against Youth Registry maintained by ISP. The law is silent with regard to screening volunteers and individuals in the proximity of a school. But school officials are advised to do due diligence as it relates to examining personnel working in extracurricular activities.

Consider a mechanism to monitor all employees who have separated from a school district by dismissal, resignation, or settlement during the course of an investigation for misconduct involving students, similar to the oversight provided by the commission for licensed employees. If such a mechanism existed, school districts throughout the state could be notified before hiring these classified employees.

4. Educate and train faculty, staff, and students

Illinois school districts must provide staff development programs that include the following:

  • At least every two years, an in-service to train school personnel, at a minimum, to understand, provide information and referrals, and address issues pertaining to youth who are parents, expectant parents, or victims of domestic or sexual violence.

  • Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act (ANCRA), School Code, and Erin’s Law Training as follows (see pink on page 12).

Professional development should be provided annually to staff in an effort to learn more about improper staff-student relationships. The Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Technical Assistance Center offers, “Adult Sexual Misconduct in Schools: Prevention and Management Training”.

The training is part of a comprehensive school emergency operations plan. It is important for schools and school districts to understand how to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from critical incidents, including those involving adult sexual misconduct. In order to prevent incidents or allegations of sexual misconduct, it is important for all school personnel to demonstrate appropriate behavior, and to recognize questionable behavior before an incident occurs.

5. Listen to students and take them seriously

Some students are more likely than other students to ask for support from school staff members. Thus, it is vital that school faculty and administration be prepared to show acceptance to all students. When it comes to issues of possible sexual harassment, the most important thing teachers and administrators can do is to listen when students ask for help.

6. Investigate and work with law enforcement

Most states have their own laws prohibiting sexual harassment in schools, and many states have also enacted anti-bullying laws which includes online harassment and bullying.

Because of the negative outcomes associated with bullying in schools, the Illinois General Assembly has found “that [school districts] should educate students, parents, and [school district personnel] about what behaviors constitute prohibited bullying.” (105 ILCS 5/27-23.7(a)). Bullying, as defined in the Illinois School Code may take various forms, including without limitation: “harassment, threats, intimidation, stalking, physical violence, sexual harassment, sexual violence, theft, public humiliation, destruction of property, or retaliation for asserting or alleging an act of bullying. This list is meant to be illustrative and non-exhaustive.”

In some situations, a school district may be responsible for the harassment.

Researcher Priscilla Pardini quoted an English/social studies teacher named Paul Moore who said, “What they need is a place to be safe from physical abuse and psychological trauma while they explore who they think they are, and get a chance to grow, in peace, at their own rate.”

We need teachers to be allies for students toward their educational learning and goals. We need staff, teachers, and administrators that will keep students safe from harm, especially while in the care of the school. Administrators should seek out allies for students because protecting students is a sacred trust.

The bottom line is that administrators need to empower students who may have experienced unwanted advances from a staff member or another individual to feel safe coming forward. Too often it goes unnoticed or un-investigated, with devastating consequences.

An example of what happens when complaints are ignored, misunderstood, or covered up is the crisis centering on USA Gymnastics. Larry Nassar had access to athletes as a team physician. He was accused over time of molesting at least 200 girls and young women and one young man — including a number of well-known Olympic gymnasts — with complaints dating as far back as 1994. Nassar pled guilty to child pornography charges and first-degree criminal sexual conduct in 2017 and was sentenced in 2018. Dozens of victims spoke at Nassar’s sentencing hearing.

Administrators and board members, as district leaders, must ensure that they do everything possible to make sure that students are emotionally, physically, and socially safe. With leadership from board members and administrators, schools can truly be safe havens for all students.

Editor’s note
References and resources associated with this article can be accessed at blog.iasb.com/journal-resources.html.