Department of Education and Sexual Assault/Harassment

On September 22, 2017, the Department of Education issued new guidance on Title IX. Given that the the person who received the majority of electoral college votes bragged about sexual assault, it is no surprise that the guidance appears to weaken interpretations of Title IX.

Before getting into the Dear Colleague Letter, it’s important to set the stage. When I hear people talk about Title IX and sexual assault in schools there seems to be a considerable amount of confusion about when Title IX comes into play.

Violating Codes of Conduct vs. Violations of Title IX

All schools, colleges, and universities have Codes of Conduct. These Codes of Conduct are supposed to have guidance for how to handle allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. They also include a variety of other components, they may include civility requirements, explicit prohibitions on plagiarism, dress codes, and attendance policies. The University of Washington Code of Conduct is captured in the WACs (Washington Administrative Code, the state version of the CFR). A sampling of the items included are: academic misconduct, acts of dishonest, alcohol violations, computer abuses, creating a public nuisance in neighboring communities, discriminatory harassment, harassment or bullying, hazing, indecent exposure, sexual assault, theft, and unauthorized recording. The Burden of Proof in “brief adjudicative proceedings” as well as “Full hearings” is the “Preponderance of evidence standard.”

As long as a school, university, or college has a (working) system where students can file complaints and those complaints are resolved in a timely fashion, Title IX likely will not come into play with regard to individual allegations of sexual assault.

Title IX is a ban on sex discrimination in education. This means that it is attempting to address the systemic issues. Title IX complaints are lodged when a educational institution appears to be failing to address the issues in a way that can lead to a situation where the educational institution knew or should have known that problems existed. (The ACLU-WA has a great guide that goes into more detail.) In an individual setting, a complaint is often filed when a person tries to pursue the educational institution’s complaint process and there are significant hurdles (the educational institution having unclear or contradictory methods of complaining, not providing a method of appeal, etc.) Title IX can also be implicated if there is a hostile environment that the school should have known existed. For example, if a significant number of complaints of sexual assault occur during football recruiting and the school does nothing to address student safety, the school could be liable for a Title IX violation. This means that in addition to many other claims students could file against the university, they could include an allegation of a Title IX violation, which allows for monetary damages. It also means, though in the history of Title IX it has never happened, that the Federal Government could rescind federal funding to the educational institution (the entire educational institution, not just the area where the discrimination occurred).

Understanding the Reason for the Recent Dear Colleague letter 

Sexual assault has long been an area where there is a misguided belief that people make false reports at substantially higher rates than other crimes and therefor anyone who claims a sexual assault happened must be looked at suspiciously. In addition, those accused of sexual assault (especially privileged white young men) should be given extra leniency so as to protect the harm that could befall them from a proper punishment. Proponents with this view point believe that anything involving sexual assault allegations should have to reach the highest burden of proof, the standard used in a criminal trial (beyond a reasonable doubt or as it’s labeled in a civil setting “clear and convincing”) even when not there is no deprivation of life or liberty at stake.

The new Q&A issued in connection with the Dear Colleague Letter rescinding the 2011 Dear Colleague letter is a nod towards heading in the direction of the heightened standard because it revokes the preponderance standard articulated in the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter.

Relevant Comparison of the Dear Colleague Letters 

The 2011 letter stated (Note the Department of Education appears to have removed it from the general summary, but it can be found on the archived site :

Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.26 OCR also uses a preponderance of the evidence standard when it resolves complaints against recipients. For instance, OCR’s Case Processing Manual requires that a noncompliance determination be supported by the preponderance of the evidence when resolving allegations of discrimination under all the statutes enforced by OCR, including Title IX.27 OCR also uses a preponderance of the evidence standard in its fund termination administrative hearings.28 Thus, in order for a school’s grievance procedures to be consistent with Title IX standards, the school must use a preponderance of the evidence standard (i.e., it is more likely than not that sexual harassment or violence occurred). The “clear and convincing” standard (i.e., it is highly probable or reasonably certain that the sexual harassment or violence occurred), currently used by some schools, is a higher standard of proof. Grievance procedures that use this higher standard are inconsistent with the standard of proof established for violations of the civil rights laws, and are thus not equitable under Title IX. Therefore, preponderance of the evidence is the appropriate standard for investigating allegations of sexual harassment or violence.

(emphasis added)
Footnotes referenced:

26 See, e.g., Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, 539 U.S. 90, 99 (2003) (noting that under the “conventional rule of civil litigation,” the preponderance of the evidence standard generally applies in cases under Title VII); Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 252-55 (1989) (approving preponderance standard in Title VII sex discrimination case) (plurality opinion); id. at 260 (White, J., concurring in the judgment); id. at 261 (O’Connor, J., concurring in the judgment). The 2001 Guidance noted (on page vi) that “[w]hile Gebser and Davis made clear that Title VII agency principles do not apply in determining liability for money damages under Title IX, the Davis Court also indicated, through its specific references to Title VII caselaw, that Title VII remains relevant in determining what constitutes hostile environment sexual harassment under Title IX.” See also Jennings v. Univ. of N.C., 482 F.3d 686, 695 (4th Cir. 2007) (“We look to case law interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for guidance in evaluating a claim brought under Title IX.”).

 

27 OCR’s Case Processing Manual is available on the Department’s Web site, at http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/ocrcpm.html.

 

28 The Title IX regulations adopt the procedural provisions applicable to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. See 34 C.F.R. § 106.71 (“The procedural provisions applicable to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are hereby adopted and incorporated herein by reference.”). The Title VI regulations apply the Administrative Procedure Act to administrative hearings required prior to termination of Federal financial assistance and require that termination decisions be “supported by and in accordance with the reliable, probative and substantial evidence.” 5 U.S.C. § 556(d). The Supreme Court has interpreted “reliable, probative and substantial evidence” as a direction to use the preponderance standard. See Steadman v. SEC, 450 U.S. 91, 98-102 (1981).

The new regulations state:

The findings of fact and conclusions should be reached by applying either a preponderance of the evidence standard or a clear and convincing evidence standard.19

(Emphasis added).

Referenced footnote:

19 The standard of evidence for evaluating a claim of sexual misconduct should be consistent with the standard the school applies in other student misconduct cases. In a recent decision, a court concluded that a school denied “basic fairness” to a responding party by, among other things, applying a lower standard of evidence only in cases of alleged sexual misconduct. Doe v. Brandeis Univ., 177 F. Supp. 3d 561, 607 (D. Mass. 2016) (“[T]he lowering of the standard appears to have been a deliberate choice by the university to make cases of sexual misconduct easier to prove—and thus more difficult to defend, both for guilty and innocent students alike. It retained the higher standard for virtually all other forms of student misconduct. The lower standard may thus be seen, in context, as part of an effort to tilt the playing field against accused students, which is particularly troublesome in light of the elimination of other basic rights of the accused.”). When a school applies special procedures in sexual misconduct cases, it suggests a discriminatory purpose and should be avoided. A postsecondary institution’s annual security report must describe the standard of evidence that will be used during any institutional disciplinary proceeding arising from an allegation of dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. 34 C.F.R. § 668.46(k)(1)(ii).

Impact of the Dear Colleague letter

This particular Dear Colleague letter will likely have minimal impact. It doesn’t require schools to use a clear and convincing standard. In fact, it requires a consistent standard and educational institutions are unlikely to want to have a “clear and convincing” standard for all the discipline proceedings that come before them.

The real damage with the change in administration of the Department of Education is a regular problem that occurs are the shift of values when there is a Republican president. The President appoints people and outlines priorities that shift away from enforcement of sex discrimination. They do not diligently pursue Title IX complaints, at least not to the same extent as those appointed by Democratic presidents. If they take a Title IX complaint, they are far more likely to pursue a complaint that alleges the educational institution’s practices were unfair to the accused than the vastly greater number of complaints of the unresponsiveness of educational institutions towards targeted students. Knowing that the Office of Civil Rights is likely not going to pursue Title IX complaints often means people are less willing to file them (this is also a trend with the EEOC and sex discrimination claims in the workforce).

It seems odd that ensuring that students are not sexually assaulted is a partisan issue, but for some inexplicable reason Republican administrations actively work to weaken protections against sexual assault, sexual harassment and efforts to overcome sex discrimination as this recent Dear Colleague Letter demonstrates.

More concerning than this particular Dear Colleague letter, which allows educational institutions to use a clear and convincing standard if that’s the standard for all other violations of their codes of conduct, is that the Department of Education is exploring changing the regulations. Nevertheless, the regulations cannot rescind the law, nor can regulations overturn court decisions. While federal enforcement can be weakened administratively and that can have a big impact, Title IX is not going anywhere any time soon.

 

13 Reasons Why is More About Bullying, Slut Shaming, and Rape Culture than Suicide

There is a Neflix show out there called 13 Reasons Why. Some people say this show is about suicide and feel that it is inappropriate (some schools are sending warning letters to parents about it). There are some great pieces about this and I encourage you to read them.

I come to show having survived the completed suicide of one of my best friends and I am publishing these thoughts on what would have been here 39th birthday. The night she killed herself she called me to see if I could hang out, but I was too worried about how I’d do in a law school class to go hang out – and I had no idea she was in so much pain. I would have skipped the bar exam itself if I had known that she was in so much pain. So it is not as if I come to 13 Reasons Why from a place of not knowing how devastating suicide is for those who survive.

The thing is, I don’t think 13 Reasons Why is about suicide. Yes, a girl does commit suicide and the tapes that she made explaining how she got to such a helpless point are the premise of the story, but her actual suicide is not the point of the show. What I think that this show gets so incredibly right, is how tough growing up can be, how kids so often do not talk about what’s impacting them, even to the best parents. I think this show talks honestly about those issues and does so better than anything I’ve seen before.

***Warning Spoiler Alerts***

In this series a young woman who is new to the school. A cute jock asks her out, and she has her first kiss. He takes a picture of her riding down a slide and there I think her skirt goes up and the guy’s “friend” sends the photo all around school, and a rumor starts that she is a slut.

Lesson One: There is a lot of slut shaming in our society and in our high schools. It can have an incredibly negative impact on girls. Also, it’s super scary to think moments that seem innocent or moments that you though were between the two of you can suddenly become wide spread. That’s why we know have laws about “Revenge Porn.”

She finds a few friends, but only a few. Her two closest friends basically ditch her (in part because they start dating each other, in part because they got more popular).

Lesson Two: High school can be achingly lonely. There’s even an app someone created now that is you can sit with us or something, but basically tries to tell people who feel lonely that there is a place where they may be welcome.

Then the geeky photographer at school stalks her, manages to get a picture of her and another friend (who happens to be female and very afraid she may be gay) experimenting with a kiss. This photo also gets widely circulated. While it isn’t completely clear who the girls are, a lot of people suspect she’s one of the girls. As an aside, the “good boy” who is the main narrator of this show flashes back to masturbating to this image – demonstrating a subtle and important point, even “good boys” get pulled into the hurtful drama and take advantage of it. Hannah (the girl who committed suicide) encourages everyone who reads the tape to throw a rock at the guy’s window. Instead the Clay (the “good boy”) takes a photo of this guy changing and shares it with the whole school. This kid, who was already widely unpopular, gets even more bullied and “pantsed” which the counselor at the school apparently doesn’t even understand the terminology, let alone acknowledge how harmful it is. Later, we also see that this kid is stockpiling weapons, with the implication being that he is planning on a school shooting.

Lesson Three: Vigilantism is not a good idea. I think we get some remorse from Clay about the impact that it had on this guy’s life, but I think he still feels perfectly justified in having done this because turnabout should be fair play right? Wrong. What the student did was absolutely wrong. But he’s also a student who is hurting and is widely unpopular and his only way to connect with people seems to be through photography. Vigilantism didn’t change what happened to Hannah and because actions have consequences, as the show is trying to show, what Clay did could end up being a large part of what tipped this kid over. Two wrongs, don’t make a right.

If there could be a true villain to the story, It is Bryce. Bryce is a super wealthy, super popular, super loved athlete. Basically a god at the school. And a serial rapist. He devalues women so much, he thinks of them as property and rapes his best friend’s girlfriend when she’s passed out drunk. Something Hannah witnesses and doesn’t do anything about, so she feels crappy about this. But then her boyfriend lies about what happens. Somehow she is was conscious enough to know something wrong happened, but not what happened and she starts drinking heavily – at school, skipping school, at home, always.

Then Bryce rapes Hannah in a hot tub. When Hannah tries to talk to her counselor about what happened he asks if she said no. As if the word “no” is the only way a person says “no.” Hannah tried to get away, tried to push him off, expressed a lack of consent and then went numb. He was much stronger and had her pinned down. This scene is powerful in that reminds me of how she committed suicide. While she is in the hot tub and he is raping her, we see her wrists being pinned down and scrapped against the side of the hot tub. This is the moment Hannah truly checks out and decides life isn’t worth living. So it’s interesting when she does the act, it is through cutting her wrists in a bathtub.

Lesson Four: Rape culture is a real thing. Jocks (and sometimes U.S. Presidents) think they should be immune from any kind of rape allegation because they are so popular any girl would want to have sex with them. When Clay is recording Bryce, trying to get a confession, there’s a line about how every girl at the high school wanted him. It’s pretty clear that he has likely raped far more than the two young women we know about.

Hannah makes one last ditch effort to try and get help before she kills herself – she turns to her high school guidance counselor. We see enough about his story to know he has a wife with young kids and his home life is likely distracting. While he’s meeting with Hannah his cell phone rings multiple times and this his direct phone line rings. I’m fairly certain if we got into the story there, something was happening at home that distracted him during the meeting with Hannah. But the reality is, Hannah was clearly feeling awful because of a rape he minimized and suggested was just behavior she now regretted. You couldn’t really get more warning signs than Hannah walked in there with and he didn’t do the basic things he should have done to plan for her safety.

Lesson Five: Schools perpetuate rape culture and would rather not rock the boat when a popular athlete is accused by a nobody girl. The school engages in a lot of idolized worship of their athletes and makes it clear they are the stars and the most important people at the school. There is a pretty widespread culture of sexual harassment at school and the school officials are oblivious to it. There’s a scene when Hannah’s mom goes into the bathroom and sees all sorts sexual messages that are also harassing, and the school had no idea. The school also appears to be oblivious to the sexual photos circulating during the school day. Schools are failing at keeping our students safe.

Perhaps one of the hardest things for parents watching 13 Reasons Why is understanding how little young adults confide in parents. Part of it is developmental hormones, lack of language to express what’s going on, being in a place where it seems like they are old enough to handle problems on their own. Not having any idea how their parents would react. But the parents depicted throughout much of this

Lesson Six: Our kids don’t talk about the things that are most upsetting to them. I believe part of the reason is not having the vocabulary. Emotional intelligence is hard. Part of it is also the normal development to adulthood and working on being your own person. Part of it is the fear of how what you say will be received. Will it be minimized? Will it be understood?

Conclusion

This is a show I’d watch with my 12 year old, and any child older than that. I’d use it as a tool to talk about the issues that happen in schools. I’d use it as an opening for difficult conversations. As for the issues of suicide, I’d use it for a reminder that she didn’t tell the people who cared about her most how much pain she was in. Her parents, her crush, they all would have supported her if they had known. We see how tortured the mom is by the fact she didn’t know about the pain her daughter was in and trying to learn and understand that pain. It’s important to turn to and be honest with those who we are closest with. Not to expect them to be able to take away the depression or the pain, but to help us access a network of resources and be a part of our mental health community.

For some great resources around suicide check out the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: https://afsp.org/

U.S. Dept of Edu Fines Penn State re: Sexual Misconduct Incidents

The U.S. Department of Education issued a press release on November 3, 2016 that they have fined Penn State University $2.4 million for failure to comply with the Clery Act. As a point of reference,according to the report in 2014-2015, Penn State received $566,403,413 in federal dollars through the a variety of loan, grant, and work study programs, so the fine, while being an important statement, it is less than 1% of the entire federal funding for one school year (and the abuse occurred from 1998 to 2011).

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act is a federal consumer protection statute that provides students, parents, employees, prospective students and employees, and the public with important information about public safety issues on college campuses. Essentially it is an act that requires schools to report the most serious crimes against people or property so that students looking into attending a school and see how safe the school is.

The penalty covers 11 serious findings of Clery Act noncompliance related to the University’s handling of Sandusky’s crimes and the university’s longstanding failure to comply with federal requirements on campus safety and substance abuse.

The findings from the press release are:

Findings:

  • Finding #1:  Clery Act violations related to the Sandusky matter (proposed fine: $27,500).
  • Finding #2:  Lack of administrative capability as a result of the University’s substantial failures to comply with the Clery Act and the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act throughout the review period, including insufficient training, support, and resources to ensure compliance (proposed fine: $27,500).
  • Finding #3:  Omitted and/or inadequate annual security report and annual fire safety report policy statements (proposed fine: $37,500).
  • Finding #4:  Failure to issue timely warnings in accordance with federal regulations.
  • Finding #5:  Failure to properly classify reported incidents and disclose crime statistics from 2008-2011 (proposed fine: $2,167,500).
  • Finding #6:  Failure to establish an adequate system for collecting crime statistics from all required sources (proposed fine: $27,500).
  • Finding #7:  Failure to maintain an accurate and complete daily crime log.
  • Finding #8:  Reporting discrepancies in crime statistics published in the annual security report and those reported to the department’s campus crime statistics database (proposed fine: $27,500).
  • Finding #9:   Failure to publish and distribute an annual security report in accordance with federal regulations (proposed fine: $27,500).
  • Finding #10: Failure to notify prospective students and employees of the availability of the annual security report and annual fire safety report (proposed fine: $27,500).
  • Finding #11: Failure to comply with the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act (proposed fine: $27,500).

A complete report can be found here. According to the report, the charges against Sandusky included more than 50 felonies, including multiple counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, and unlawful contact with minors as well as as charges for corruption of a minor and endangering the welfare of a minor. The report also noted, that two other people were charged, Timothy Curley and Gary Schultz for failing to to report allegations against Sandusky to law enforcement and CPS and perjury before the Grand Jury.

Another interesting pull-out from the report:

Data compiled by the University’s Office of Student Conduct showed that during the 2002 – 2003 academic year student-athletes represented 1.6% of the student body but were responsible for 5.16% of conduct code violations. The figures were similar in 20032004 where athletes were 1.5% of the student body but committed 3.05% of all violations. In 2004-2005, athletes were 1.82% of the student body and counted for 3.51% of all charges. Of particular concern, in 2003- 2004, student-athletes were charged with 9.38% of all physical assaults while only accounting for 1.5% of the student body and 17.78% of all such violations in 2004-2005 when they only represented 1.82% of all students. Athletes were also cited for sexual assault at a higher rate than the general population accounting for 50% of sexual assault charges in 2002-2003 and 20% of those offenses in 2004-2005. A similar pattern was observed for charges of disorderly conduct and alcohol-related offenses during this period. In most years through 2010-2011, the football team also had the most drug and alcohol citations of any Penn State sports program. 6

The report goes on and provides a detailed review of the culture and issues at Penn State and details on each Clery Act violation.

Bullying on the Bus: Bellevue School Discrimination Case

On August 29, 2016, the Washington State Court of Appeals (Division I) issued a published decision involving claims against the Bellevue School District regarding the bullying and retaliation the school bus. The case itself involves some legal technicalities, specifically around jury instructions. Specifically the question was essentially whether the trial court erred in using the statutory definition in the harassment, bullying, and intimidation statutory statute in a jury instruction and whether that created an improper higher standard for the family to meet in their negligence suit.

Case

Allen & Jennifer Quynn, Appellants v. Bellevue School District, Respondent; Docket No. 73825-9; Opinion Author – Dwyer; joined by Becker and Trickey; Attorney for Appellants – Katherine George; Attorney for Respondents James Baker and Kenneth Masters. 

Basic Facts

Parents sued the Bellevue School District, claiming that the district had been negligent in failing to protect their daughter (while the child is referenced by her name in appeal, to increase her privacy, she will be referred to as “Daughter”) from harassment, intimidation, and bullying that she suffered while riding the school bus during her eighth grade year of middle school. A group of boys where allegedly targeting female students and Daughter reported an especially serious incident. She then became the focus of the boys’ aggression. There was name calling, groping, and having items thrown at her that resulted in welts.

She did not report the harassment, intimidation, and bullying that occurred against her after her report. The claim in the case is that the District knew or should have known that bullying was a likely result from the reporting and the school should have done more to ensure Daughter’s safety.

The Family challenged the decision with regard to a jury instruction regarding the duty of the school district and the definition of harassment, intimidation and bullying. They challenged based on (1) The district owed the child the highest duty of care, one applicable to common carriers, (2) inclusion of the definition of harassment, intimidation, and bullying unfairly limited the reach of their negligence claim, and (3) the instruction improperly articulated the duty and responsibility owed to Daughter by the district.

Appellate Court Opinion

The Court of Appeals agreed that school districts have a special relationship with students that gives rise to a duty of care to prevent a third party from causing physical injury to another.  This case cites McLeod v. Grant County School District No. 128, 42 Wn.2d 316, 255 P.2d 360 (1953), which held that because a child is compelled to attend school and has an involuntary relationship with the school district, the district has a duty “to anticipate dangers which may reasonably be anticipated, and to then take precautions to protect pupils in its custody from such dangers.”

In this case, the  Court of Appeals disagreed with the family that School Districts are required to provide the highest level of care on school buses. Instead the court held that the standard of care on a school bus, regarding the behavior of children, versus how a bus is driven, is the same as it would be anywhere else at school – reasonable care, “as it supervises the pupils within its custody, the district is required to exercise such care as a reasonably prudent person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances…The basic idea is that a school district has the power to control the conduct of its students while they are in school or engaged in school activities and with that power goes the responsibility of reasonable supervision.”

The Court of Appeals distinguished the heightened duty of a common carrier, which they linked to activities related to driving a bus from a lower level of duty, which they believed was more appropriate for behaviors of students on the bus. Basically the heightened duty of car is for driving functions, including making sure you use the stop sign so children can cross safely; reasonable care must be used with regard to the behavior of the children.

The next question involved a jury instruction that used the statutory language of the state harassment, intimidation and bullying law (“HIB Law”). In discussing the use of the statutory language in the instruction regarding negligence, the Court of Appeals noted that the HIB Law does not create a private right of action (meaning the HIB Law doesn’t allow parents to sue, so it’s not appropriate to use that definition when the suit doesn’t arise out of that law). The Court of Appeals found that by imposing the administrative definition of “harassment, intimidation, and bullying” the trial court improperly restricted the scope of the tort claim, which had the impact of requiring enhanced elements of proof in order to prevail.

Translation: the suit was regarding the school’s negligence. Instead of focusing on the question of whether the school was negligent, the jury was instructed to look at the HIB Law definition and determine whether the behavior of the bullying students reached a a level of physical harm, “substantially interfering with a student’s education” or “substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school.”

The law around negligence not require physical harm. The court stated, “Indeed, to suggest that a bullied student cannot recover for emotional or psychological harm in the absence of actual physical injury runs completely counter to the analysis in McLeod.”

On top of the fact that physical harm is not required, proving that behavior had a “substantial” impact on a student or the school is a much higher burden than proving a school was negligent. The depth of the harm in a tort/negligence action is typically dealt with in determining the amount of damages (if any) and not whether the school was actually negligent.

The Court of Appeals said the error in this case required a new trial. As is all to often the case in cases involving schools, the litigation goes on longer than children are even in school. The incidents in this case occurred around December 2010. Now, in September 2016, the case is being sent down for another trial (that’s if the school district doesn’t appeal this ruling, if this ruling gets appealed and goes to the State Supreme Court and is heard and affirmed by the Washington State Supreme Court, resolution through a litigation process is likely still years off. The child was in the 8th grade when this incident occurred. Hopefully she’s in college now.

 

Washington State Supreme Court Case Re: School Negligence

The Washington State Supreme Court just issued a decision regarding school liability in a case where a 14 year female junior high student was raped by an 18 year male high school student who was also a registered sex offender. Approximately two years before, the male student, in the same school district, sexually assaulted a different junior high student. He was charged with indecent liberties and suspended for the rest of the school year. He was required to register as a level one sex offender and was not allowed contact with people two or more years younger than himself.

It is unclear to me whether the same principal was at the school when the original incident happened, but the principal at the time of second incident was notified by the Pierce County sheriff that the male student was registered sex offender. The record indicates that the principal did not inform the male student’s teachers, coaches, or relevant staff of the male student’s sex offender status. The evidence suggested that the principal did nothing to establish a safety plan and to help the male student avoid students two or more years younger than him.

The male student was allowed to participate in track and ran varsity for the Bethel High School varsity team. The high school and the junior high shared the track field. The male student was described as acting like a coach and mentor to the younger students on both schools’ teams. During practice a mutual friend introduced the targeted student and the aggressor. The very next day he invited her to lunch after school and she skipped track practice with the intention of going to Burger King for lunch, instead the male student took her to his home, under the pretense he had forgotten something, and then he raped the female student.

The female student told a friend and the friend told the school and the girl’s parent. The police were called and the male student was charged with third degree rape and plead guilty to second degree assault.

The trial court dismissed the case on summary judgment and the Supreme Court was addressing the questions: (1) Whether the school district’s responsibility to protect the student ended, and therefore its liability ended, when she left campus? And (2) Whether the alleged negligence, as a matter of law, could be the proximate cause of her injury?

A side note about proximate cause

Since the concept of “proximate cause” is central to the court’s analysis I want to elaborate on the issue for clarity for nonlawyers (the majority also did provided a quality description). This is a legal concept that involves two concepts – cause in fact, and legal cause. Cause in fact means that “but for” the A, B would not have happened. Legal cause is a policy determination about how far the consequences of a defendant’s acts should extend. There can be more than one proximate cause of an injury, and something else by a third party does not necessarily break the causal chain from the original negligence to final injury.

A couple of overly simplistic examples:

Proximate cause does not exist: D is texting and inadvertently lets her foot of the gas and rear ends E at a stop sign. D has a hummer and E has smart car, so there’s some damage, but everyone seems fine. A couple days later, E decides to go to E’s doctor because E has a sore neck that doesn’t seem to be going away. While coming back from the doctor, E is robbed. There is no proximate cause for D for the loss of money E sustained in the robbery because it is not a foreseeable consequence that someone could get robbed on the way back from a medical appointment.

Proximate cause exists: A shoots B and B gets in a car and drive to the hospital, and en route to the hospital gets hit by C and is B delayed in getting to the hospital by 25 minutes. A is still responsible for any injuries related to the gunshot, even if the delay possibly exacerbated the injury, because it is reasonably foreseeable that if you shoot someone, they may have a hard time getting to help. Proximate Cause Stops Existing: B gets fixed at the hospital and two weeks later is at a routine follow-up appointment and slips and falls at the doctor’s office. B breaks their arm in the fall. While on some level it is foreseeable that B would have follow-up care and that some people have accidents, as a policy the slip and fall is disconnected enough from the initial gun shot that as a legal matter we are likely to say that the A is not liable for injury related to slip and fall, even though, but for the initial gun shot, B would likely not have been at the doctor’s office.

Back to the School Discrimination Case

The issues in the school negligence case before the Washington State Supreme Court was about whether or not the fact that the incident occurred in the male students home was enough of another factor as to interrupt the school’s potential liability. In the dissent’s view, the school’s responsibility ended because a school cannot control the behavior of students in their homes. Fortunately that was the dissent and their view, that as a matter of law the school cannot be liable for its negligent acts if the injury occurs of school grounds or not at school activities. Instead the majority held that it was reasonably foreseeable and the school district may be liable for a foreseeable injury that is likely a proximate cause for the injury.

This decision doesn’t mean that a jury will find the school district was negligent. The school district will still have an opportunity to try to demonstrate that it was not essentially their fault that the 14 year old student was raped by an 18 year old student. Although, given that the then Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) said that “the haphazard nature of Bethel’s approach to keeping its students safe from registered sex predators frankly boggles the imagination” and that the district “fell unconscionably below the accepted standard of care ‘to protect students from dangers that are known or should have been known,'” I don’t think the school district’s chance of success is very high.

This decision does say that a school district’s liability does not end at the schoolhouse doors (to adopt an expression about student rights). I expect that it will be a high threshold for school district liability, but a situation like this, where a school district has two types of knowledge, their own disciplinary history of the aggressor student and the report by the Sheriff’s office of the aggressor student’s sex offender registry status and the requirement not to be around students who were two years younger and that the day after he met this student at track practice he raped her make this a particularly compelling case. Even with the compelling facts, it was a narrow (5:4) decision.

Additional Case Details: 

N.L. v. Bethel Sch. Dist., Docket No. 91775-2, Counsel for Petitioner: Francis Stanley Floyd and John Armen Safarli at Floyd Pflueger & Ringer PS; Counsel for Respondent: Julie Anne Kays and Robert Connelly Jr at Connelly Law Offices.

Amicus briefs were filed by Gerald Moberg for Jerry Morberg & Associates on behalf of the Washington State School Directors Association, Association of Washington School Principals, and Washington Association of School Administrators. 

Amicus brief on Behalf of the Washington State Association for Justice Foundation was filed by Bryan Harnetiaux, Valerie Davis Mcomie, and Daniel Edward Huntingon (the court Supreme Court Information Sheet references a brief, but the brief was not found on Court website with the links to the briefs in the case).

Briefs in the case can be found on the Washington State Courts website under Supreme Court Petitions for Review

Difficulties in Pursuing Bias Claims – Especially when Unrepresented

In April 2016, the Washington State Court of Appeals (Division II), issued an unpublished opinion of a case involving claims of discrimination based on race (African American family) and religion (Muslim family). An unpublished opinion is an opinion that the court believes does not contain facts/law that create a situation where the opinion can be useful in subsequent cases. Until recently, parties could not cite to unpublished decisions, this rule is changing and parties may be able to provide it to a court, but a Court of Appeals may not rely on the case in a subsequent case, meaning an unpublished case does not create case law that must be followed in future cases.

Ahsson And Kari Spry, Appellants V Peninsula School District, Respondent, Docket No. 46782-8; Opinion Author – Melnick; joined by Maxa and Sutton. Attorneys for Appellants – Pro se (no attorney representation). Attorneys for Respondent – Jessie Lee Harris and Marshall Ferguson -Williams Kastner & Gibbs PLLC

Washington Law Against Discrimination 

This case is noteworthy, even though it is not published, because it discusses use of the Washington Law Against Discrimination in filing a claim against a school district. There appears to be no dispute that the WLAD applies to schools as places of accommodation.

The court used the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting framework (McDonnell Douglas is a U.S. Supreme Court case that addressing employment discrimination). The court found that the Sprys carried the initial burden to prove a prima facie case and that they must do more than express an opinion or make conclusory statements. Do this this they must establish, “specific and material facts to support each element of his or her prima facie case.”

The plaintiff must show:

(1) the plaintiff is a member of a protected class;

(2) the defendant’s establishment is a place of public accommodation;

(3) the defendant discriminated against plaintiff by not treating him in a manner comparable to the treatment it provides to persons outside that class; and

(4) the protected class status was a substantial factor causing the discrimination.

 

The parties, represented themselves, and did not provide examples of how the schools treatment, particularly filing CPS reports and discipline measures against the children, compared to other students.

It was not argued, but as soon as the school new there was a complaint regarding racial discrimination, they had an affirmative duty to investigate and provide a report to the parents under the state nondiscrimation in education law. However, this law was not discussed in the case.

Negligence and Negligent Inflection of Emotional Distress

The Sprys argued that the school was also negligent and its actions resulted in negligent inflection of emotional distress. This also demonstrates a problem with the Sprys representing themselves because they did not brief this issue on appeal and at the trial level they did not respond to the school’s motion for summary judgment that the negligence claim should be dismissed.

Conclusion

This case is likely unpublished because the family did not argue their position in the same way as it could have been argued if they had the resources to hire an attorney to argue the case for them. The litigation system is overwhelming and when people represent themselves, they are required to follow the legal and procedural rules in the same way as attorneys. While courts will often provide pro ses with a little leniency when pro se individuals are clearly attempting to do their best to follow the rules, they have the discretion to decide that a side is not properly pursuing its claim and to continue to allow it to proceed is a waste of judicial resources.

 

Title IX Covers Transgender Students and Access to Bathrooms

May 13, 2016 marked an important day for Title IX, as the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division issued a Dear Colleague Letter regarding the application of the ban on sex discrimination in schools and what schools need to do to ensure that they do not discriminate based on gender identity. The letter notes this is not a change to the law, but simply significant guidance to “inform recipients about how the Departments evaluate whether covered entities are complying with their legal obligations.”

The Dear Colleague Letter states:

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX) and its implementing regulations prohibit sex discrimination in educational programs and activities operated by recipients of Federal financial assistance. This prohibition encompasses discrimination based on a student’s gender identity, including discrimination based on a student’s transgender status.

The letter is a great resources for schools struggling with how to respect transgender or gender queer students. It provides terminology definitions and advice on how to create a safe and nondiscriminatory environment.

It also addresses the biggest issue that schools have with understanding how to create a nondiscriminatory environment for transgender and gender queer students: sex-segregated facilities. Below is exactly what the Dear Colleague Letter says:

Sex-Segregated Activities and Facilities Title IX’s implementing regulations permit a school to provide sex-segregated restrooms, locker rooms, shower facilities, housing, and athletic teams, as well as single-sex classes under certain circumstances. When a school provides sex-segregated activities and facilities, transgender students must be allowed to participate in such activities and access such facilities consistent with their gender identity.

Restrooms and Locker Rooms. A school may provide separate facilities on the basis of sex, but must allow transgender students access to such facilities consistent with their gender identity.A school may not require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so. A school may, however, make individual-user options available to all students who voluntarily seek additional privacy.

Athletics. Title IX regulations permit a school to operate or sponsor sex-segregated athletics teams when selection for such teams is based upon competitive skill or when the activity involved is a contact sport. A school may not, however, adopt or adhere to requirements that rely on overly broad generalizations or stereotypes about the differences between transgender students and other students of the same sex (i.e., the same gender identity) or others’ discomfort with transgender students. Title IX does not prohibit age-appropriate, tailored requirements based on sound, current, and research-based medical knowledge about the impact of the students’ participation on the competitive fairness or physical safety of the sport.18

Single-Sex Classes. Although separating students by sex in classes and activities is generally prohibited, nonvocational elementary and secondary schools may offer nonvocational single-sex classes and extracurricular activities under certain circumstances. When offering such classes and activities, a school must allow transgender students to participate consistent with their gender identity.

Single-Sex Schools. Title IX does not apply to the admissions policies of certain educational institutions, including nonvocational elementary and secondary schools, and private undergraduate colleges.20 Those schools are therefore permitted under Title IX to set their own ex-based admissions policies. Nothing in Title IX prohibits a private undergraduate women’s college from admitting transgender women if it so chooses.

Social Fraternities and Sororities. Title IX does not apply to the membership practices of social fraternities and sororities. Those organizations are therefore permitted under Title IX to set their own policies regarding the sex, including gender identity, of their members. Nothing in Title IX prohibits a fraternity from admitting transgender men or a sorority from admitting transgender women if it so chooses.

Housing and Overnight Accommodations. Title IX allows a school to provide separate housing on the basis of sex. But a school must allow transgender students to access housing consistent with their gender identity and may not require transgender students to stay in single-occupancy accommodations or to disclose personal information when not required of other students. Nothing in Title IX prohibits a school from honoring a student’s voluntary request for single occupancy accommodations if it so chooses.

Other Sex-Specific Activities and Rules. Unless expressly authorized by Title IX or its implementing regulations, a school may not segregate or otherwise distinguish students on the basis of their sex, including gender identity, in any school activities or the application of any school rule. Likewise, a school may not discipline students or exclude them from participating in activities for appearing or behaving in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity or that does not conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity (e.g., in yearbook photographs, at school dances, or at graduation ceremonies).

 

Turning the Bainbridge Island Alleged Teacher Abuse into a Learning Moment

The Bainbridge Island Police Department has arrested 26-year-old teacher Jessica Fuchs for illegal sexual conduct with a 16-year-old sophomore (based on the charges, the student was likely 16 when all incidents occurred). I blogged about this case here. Inside Bainbridge has several articles regarding the case and the arrest. Bainbridge Islander also has articles as does the Kitsap Sun.

According to Inside Bainbridge she was charged with Sexual Misconduct with a Minor in the 1st Degree, a class C felony (RCW 9A.44.093, makes it a crime for a teacher to have sex with a student who is at least 16 years old, when the teacher is at least 60 months older than the student, a Class C felony is a maximum of 5 years in prison); Communication with a Minor for Immoral Purposes, a gross misdemeanor (maximum of 364 days), and Tampering with a Witness, also a Class C felony.  If the student had been 15 when some of the incidents occurred other criminal laws would have also applied regarding rape of child or molestation of a child.

» Read more

Mercer Island School District v. Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and parents of B.W.

On April 13, 2015, Division I issued its decision in the Mercer Island racial discrimination case that I previously wrote about here. Division I found that in the the administrative context (i.e., working with the school district and OSPI as opposed to filing a civil suit for damages in court), school districts that have actual or constructive notice (also known as the knew or should have known standard) of racial harassment, the school must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred. It further requires that every investigation should be prompt, thorough, and impartial. Finally, it imposes upon the school the duty to take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end harassment, eliminate any hostile environment and its effects, and prevent harassment from recurring.

The knew or should have known standard is a lower standard than the deliberate indifference standard. The court noted that even though the deliberate indifference standard creates a lower burden for a school district, to avoid administrative liability the school district still failed to meet the deliberate indifference test. The court likely went into this discussion to make sure that if the case was appealed to the State Supreme Court that the justices would not doubt how Division I would have ruled. This would mean if the State Supreme Court eventually reverses the knew or should have known standard, the overall holding of this case will not be reversed, because the court of appeals clearly demonstrated that they would have ruled the same way using the higher threshold.

Mercer Island School District, Res. V. N.W. And R.W., On Behalf Of B.w., Apps., Docket No. 71419-8-I, File Date: April 13, 2015; Opinion: Dwyer, Concurrence in part: Verellen; Counsel for Appellant: Ernest Saadiq Morris; Counsel for Respondent Parker a Howell and Jeffrey Ganson Counsel for OSPI and Amicus on behalf OSPI: Justin Kjolseth; Amicus on behalf of the ACLU: Sara Dunne and La Rond Baker

Oversimplified facts: A student targeted B.W., calling him names on multiple occasions. B.W. The targeted student’s grades dropped in that class. Part of the reason the grade dropped was that instead of writing on topic, he submitted two papers describing a random and violent accident happen to the aggressor student. Once the targeted student transferred out of the class, he began earning “A’s” and there were no more concerns about his behavior.

The court first focused on the deliberate indifference standard. In order to satisfy the deliberate indifference standard, the parents were required to establish: (1) racial discrimination; (2) knowledge by an appropriate person of the discrimination; (3) deliberate indifference by the district; and (4) discrimination that was sufficiently severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to have deprived the targeted student of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.

Per the opinion, the school made several mistakes in dealing with this situation. Based on the deliberate indifference standard, these include:

  • The school district looked at the incidents involving the harassment separately instead of holistically. A school district acts with deliberate indifference when it responds to report of a discriminatory act that is clearly unreasonable in light of all of the known circumstances. 
  • The  school failed to properly investigate the claim of discrimination, which resulted in a clearly unreasonable response to the harassment. 
    • Failed to have compliance coordinator/officer and failure to update its policies to reflect the nondiscrimination law and OSPI’s May 2011 regulations.
    • Co-principals conducted inadequate investigations, failing to follow even their own out-of-date policy and doing the following:
      • The school and the District only interviewed two of the four students working on the group project where the racial harassment incidents occurred. The reasons for not interviewing additional students were not credible, specifically that an Apserger’s diagnosis would have made B.W. mishear the racial comment. The District didn’t provide any any evidence to support that conclusion that an Asperger’s diagnosis would make B.W. unable to accurately hear and report a racial epithet.
      • The school failed to discover basic information that contextualized B.W.’s complaint and gave further credence to B.W.’s allegations.
      • The school continued to informally investigate the report after the parents told him they wished to file a formal complaint, which would have been handled by the District as opposed to the school.
      • The District did not discuss B.W.’s essay. The teacher expressed concern that if the parents saw the essay, the parents would see it as confirming the racial harassment allegations.
    • Formal investigation by the school’s frequently used outside counsel was “fraught with inadequacies.”
      • Attorney investigator did not ask B.W. about the two essays, nor did she ask the teacher or co-principals to explain why they withheld the existence of the essays from the parents. The reports weren’t even included in the text of the report, but they were appended to the report, which is the first time the parents learned of the existence of one of the essays.
      • She did not account for the conspicuous discrepancy between B.W.’s grades in other classes and his grades in the class he shared with his harasser.
      • She did not address the ostensible connection between the discussion of Mexico and the racially charged comments between two students and B.W.
    • District failed to meaningfully and appropriately discipline the aggressor student. He was only told not to use race as the basis for angry comments and to sign an “anti-harassment contract.”
    • District refused to consider any scenario in which B.W. was not to blame for the conflict with the aggressor student, believing the conflict was due to B.W.’s social deficits. Apparently the school was frustrated because shortly after entering this school district, B.W.’s IEP was withdrawn at the parent’s request.

Having satisfied the first three prongs of the deliberate indifference test, the next question is whether it was sufficiently severe, pervasive and objectively offensive so that it can be said to have deprived B.W. of access to educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school. The court said the racial comments were beyond simple teasing and name-calling, the student made it clear that it wasn’t that his skin color made him different, but that it made him stupid. It was also done in the context of group setting, increasing the humiliation B.W. felt. B.W. was new to this school, he cried in public, he wrote disturbing essays, and he received uncharacteristically low grades in this class.

Based on that, the court held that harassment was sufficiently severe. Then the question is – did it interfere with equal access to educational opportunities or benefits? The “dropoff” in grades can provide “necessary evidence of a potential link between” a students diminished educational opportunities.” B.W. was also forced to remain in the class with the harassing student. Once B.W.’s parents transferred him out of the class, his grades immediately went up to match his high achievement in his other classes.

Lower Standard Analysis 

After stating that the facts support a finding that the school district failed to meet the deliberate indifference standard, the court turned its discussion to the question of whether in the administrative context deliberate indifference applies. The Office of Civil Rights (of the U.S. Department of Education, the administrative agency tasked with enforcement of the Federal counterparts to the Washington nondiscrimination laws) requires “upon receiving actual or constructive notice of racial harassment, the school ‘take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred.'” Then the  District is required to take “prompt and effective steps” to end the harassment.” Applying this more lenient standard the court found that “it is abundantly clear that the District’s response violated the EEOL.” (EEOL is the Equal Education Opportunity Law prohibits discrimination on a several protected classes, including race.)

Concurrence

Verellan concurs that the District failed to meet the deliberate indifference standard in addressing the discrimination. Verellan would not take the next step and determine whether the OCR know or should have known standard should have been applied.

Take Away Points

When parents complain to the school district, or the school district knew or should have known about discrimination based on any of the of the protected classes identified in RCW 28A.642.010:

  • race,
  • creed,
  • religion,
  • color,
  • national origin,
  • honorably discharged veteran or military status,
  • sexual orientation including gender expression or identity,
  • the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability, or the use of a trained dog guide or service animal by a person with a disability.
  • Sex (is covered under the Sex Equity Law RCW 28A.640)

a school must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what has occurred. The investigation should be prompt, thorough, and impartial. If discrimination exists (including harassment) the District must take prompt and effective steps to end the harassment.

Missing Parts of the Opinion

Difference between Federal and State Laws

I would have liked to see a greater discussion on state vs. federal law and whether or not the deliberate indifference standard is truly required in state discrimination cases. The other case decided by Division I on this issues, S.S. v. Alexander, 143 Wn. App. 75, 177 P3d 742 (2008) also did not discuss this issue. The court mentioned Title IX and Title IX, which are interpreted consistently with each other. Both are based on the Congress’s power under the Spending Clause. Basically compliance with nondiscrimination rules are ensured because the federal government can place conditions on the receipt of federal funds. If schools take federal funding, they agree to abide by the rules, in “what amounts essentially to a contract between the Government and the recipient of funds.”  (Citing Gebser v. Lago Visto Indep. Sch. Dist. 524 U.W. 274, 286 (1998). 

There is no express right to a private suit in Title VI or Title IX, but the Supreme court has held that both statutes are enforceable through an implied right of action. The Supreme Court clarified that this private right of action is only available when a school acts with deliberate indifference. It would be inconsistent with the SPending Clause origins of Title IX and Title CI to impose damages liability unless a school authority with the power to remedy the discrimination had actual notice of and was deliberately indifferent to the conduct.

Despite discussing the above reasoning and pointing out that Title IX and Title VI require a deliberate indifference standard, the court doesn’t discuss the state statues and how they are not based on the Spending Clause. States get to tell schools what kind of nondiscriminatory standards they must comply with without basing it on any condition of funding. Plus our state statutes have express rights to pursue actions in civil courts. It’s not implied. Schools are on constructive notice that the must not discriminate and if they discriminate there may be administrative and judicial consequences. This distinction seems very important but it isn’t discussed. (See Pages 32-34 of the court’s decision for more discussion on this).

Multiple Identities 

The court likely limited its discussion to race because that was the issue before it, but since there was so much discussion about the targeted student’s Asperger’s diagnosis, I would have like to have the court point out that the failure of the school district to believe the targeted student because of his Asperger’s diagnosis was also a form of discrimination. Students who have multiple identities are often targeted for bullying because of the fact that they have multiple identities and the decision was remiss to spend so much time discussing the way the Apserger’s diagnosis interfered with the District’s handling of the case without stating that was also discriminatory.

Distinction between harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) and discrimination.

I was disappointed that there was no discussion about the difference between harassment, intimidation and bullying (“HIB”) and discrimination. There has been a lot more emphasis put in schools about HIB, there are state model policies and procedures. On Page 12, the court noted that the District’s November 4 decision was pursuant to the District’s Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying policy. This flags for me that it was the wrong policy as it is in connection with a different law. The distinction between generalized HIB and HIB targeted at a student based on one of the protected classes identified in the state statue trigger different requirements for action. HIB targeted based on a protected class is likely going to be discrimination. Generalized HIB require individualized responses. HIB against a student because of a protected class requires schools to address the school atmosphere/climate and review their policies and procedures to make sure the school is not contributing to the issue of discrimination. HIB based on federally protected classes may overlap with federal nondiscrimination laws and may require a concurrent Title VI or Title IX investigation.

 

Pending Education Discrimination Case

On February 26, 2015, Division I heard Mercer Island School District v. N.W. and R.W. (Case no. 71419-8 – follow this link and type the case number to find all materials related to this case).

The rough outline of the case is that a student of color was targeted with racial comments by one main student and a couple of that students friends. The school district did respond, but there seems to be questions of whether the school district responded in a timely and appropriate manner.

When the parents complained about the students behavior and the school’s response, the school said there was no discrimination. The parents appealed to the school board and the school board denied the existence of discrimination. The parents then appealed to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and there was a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). The ALJ found the school had acted in a discriminatory manner. The school district appealed in Superior Court and the Superior Court overturned on the ALJ’s major findings. The parents appealed the Superior Court decision to Division I.

At oral arguments, the judges honed in on what standard should be used in the administrative context when determining the liability of a school district. The School District argued for a high standard of “deliberate indifference” and the attorney for the parents, Ernest Saadiq Morris, noted that the Administrative Law Judge did use the deliberate indifference standard but that even under this standards the school district did not prevail with the ALJ and that based on administrative law, the ALJ findings should be upheld. In response to the specific question regarding the appropriate standard, the parents agreed that in the administrative context it should be the lower standard known or should have known standard is more appropriate, although I got the impression there was a concession that the higher standard should apply in a monetary damages setting.

In the guidance that exists on this question of the standard in the administrative context, both the Department of Justice and OSPI have stated that the known or should have known standard should apply and that schools are required to take prompt action to correct the discrimination and the effects of discrimination.

The deliberate indifference standard the school district advocated is based on the case law regarding when a individual files a suit against a school district for monetary damages. In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629 (1999), while the U.S. Supreme Court found a school district could be liable under Title IX for peer based sexual harassment, the standard was deliberate indifference – recipients response to the harassment or lack thereof is clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.

Based on oral arguments – it seems that the main question the court will answer in its opinion is – in the administrative context can schools be held liable in the sense of requiring administrative fixes, improving policies and procedures, based on the known or should have known standard?

An important distinction that I did not feel was teased out is the reason that the court found reached the deliberate indifference holding. Title IX is considered a spending clause law, meaning that in order to receive federal funds a school district has to agree not to discriminate. However, the statutes at play here are state statutes, not federal statutes. States do not have to rely on spending clauses or anything else. They get to make rules within their borders and the rules have to be followed. The nondiscrimination laws, coupled with our laws against harassment, intimidation and bullying, make it clear that our legislature intends on schools having an affirmative duty to make sure that kids are safe in schools, even for peer harassment issues.

One of the Judges on the panel hearing this case was Judge Dwyer. Judge Drwyer wrote the majority opinion in one of the only state based discrimination appellate decision, a 2008 Title IX case by the name of S.S. v. Roe/University of Washington, 143 Wn. App. 75 (Wash.App. Div 1 2000)(case involved a student football player raping a student and the University’s poor response). In this context, Division I upheld the deliberate indifference standard. This was a suit for monetary damages and there was not a significant discussion on and Division I cited the Davis court that “funding recipients are properly held liable in damages only where they are deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment, of which they have actual knowledge, that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.”

Division I follows the deliberate indifference theory when looking at the University’s potential liability. Again, this was a Title IX case, not a case based on the state nondiscrimination or sex equity laws.

It will be interesting to see what the court decides and whether either of the parties will appeal the decision to our state supreme court.

Parent Guide as Bainbridge Island School District Deals with Teacher’s Inappropriate Conduct

On February 26, 2015, the Bainbridge Island School District sent out an email to the parents and community of Bainbridge Island School District to alert us of allegations of improper conduct of a Bainbridge Island High School teacher towards a student.

February 25, 2015
Dear Bainbridge High School Families,
Late afternoon Tuesday, Feb. 24, Bainbridge High School administrators learned of allegations of inappropriate conduct between a BHS teacher and student. Because the safety and well-being of our students is our top priority, we want to inform you of the steps we are taking at this time.
This morning, BHS administrators reported the allegations to law enforcement. While we are not authorized to provide specifics identifying either the student or the teacher, we can assure you that school and district administrators will fully cooperate with authorities on any investigation. We will also retain an independent investigator. The teacher is now on administrative leave pending the completion of the investigation.
The Bainbridge Island School District is taking the allegations very seriously. Because the incident involves members of our school community, any investigation may draw attention to our school. Situations of this nature can be upsetting to students and staff who hear about this at school, from friends or media. In the weeks ahead, our staff will pay additional attention to students for any signs of distress. Counselors will also be available to speak with students and listen to their feelings and their concerns.
We are committed to fully understanding the situation and working with authorities and the community until this matter is resolved. Thank you for your support and understanding.
Sincerely,
Mary Alice O’Neill
Principal

 

The email limits the information that it provides. From a legal standpoint limiting information provided is appropriate because the school district and the police must investigate the facts of the case. Limiting comment reduces the rumors and innuendo that are most assuredly going to follow. Rumor and innuendo are not inherently bad for a community as they are a method of community investigation, but they are not reliable for trying to figure out the facts surrounding an incident.

The vacuum of information leaves parents and community members searching for answers. This blog post is designed to provide a little understanding about what the process may look like.

First, the email is unclear as to what the conduct it, it simply says “inappropriate conduct.” That could be a wide variety of things, they could have been gambling, or the teacher could have slapped the student, but “inappropriate conduct” is usually code for sexual conduct. There is also a long history in education of teachers, especially coaches, behaving in sexually inappropriate ways towards students (see my November 14, 2014 blog post which links to the Seattle Times story). There is also a long history of media romanticizing student-teacher sexual relationships, one somewhat recent example was the Pretty Little Liars plot line of the student-teacher affair.

Second, it was referred to the police, which means the activity was criminal, lending support to the theory that it was sexual conduct.

The point of this blog post is to provide a information on the responsibilities of the school and the police, and to provide information for students and parents parents regarding their rights and ways to advocate for themselves when something like this happens to one of our children.

School District Responsibilities

When something happens in a school setting, whether in school, on a field trip, or by an employee of the school district, the school district is has a responsibility to take actions to protect students, and when, despite their efforts to protect students, something happens anyway, they have a responsibility to immediately get the student(s) safe, then to investigate, and then to make whatever structural changes necessary to reduce the possibility of a similar incident occurring in the future.

The school also need to make sure they monitor the atmosphere after-the-fact. It is common for the perpetrators of sexual assaults to be charismatic. It is likely that the teacher is well-liked. There is a possibility there could be back lash against the targeted student and a school has a duty to protect against this possibility.

While the school district has involved the police, they are not allowed to wait for the police to investigate before performing their own investigation. The email noted that the school district would be performing its own independent investigation.

Meanwhile, the school must take immediate action to increase the safety of the targeted student and all students. In this instance, the school has immediately put the teacher on administrative leave and that is and important first step, regardless of the outcome of the investigation. They have also noted that they are going to paying particular attention to the school climate and will have counselors available to talk to students.

If the incident that occurred is of a sexual nature then there are state and federal responsibilities that apply. The federal law is Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in schools, including sexual harassment and sexual assault. The state law is our state Sex Equality law. If it it isn’t a sexual incident but it is related to certain protected classes, there are also federal and state laws which create heightened responsibilities for the school, the state protections are broader and cover race, creed, color, national origin, honorably discharged veteran or military status, sexual orientation, the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability, or the use of a trained dog guide or service animal by a person with a disability.

When an issue occurs that involves what is often referred to as “protected classes” a school must go beyond the specific incident and look at its climate, its policies, its procedures and determine if there is anything they can do to decrease the possibility of something happening in the future. If the school realizes that there is a culture or climate that contributed to the incident occurring they must take remedial action and work to improve the climate beyond simply disciplining the perpetrator of this particular incident. Essentially, a school district must turn it into a learning moment.

One important change BI should make is around the lack of transparency for the BI school district policy on sexual harassment and discrimination. While you can find their harassment, intimidation and bullying policy here, I have never been able to find their policies and procedures that are connected to protections against discrimination based on the protected classes. While the additional protected classes are relatively new (law passed in 2010), the Sex Equity law and associated responsibilities to have sexual harassment policies have been around since 1975 on the state level and since 1972 on the federal level. The state administrative regulations that provide school districts with some guidance are available here. These administrative regulations were recently get revised (in December 2014), but those changes relate more to when the matter gets appealed to the Office of the Superintendent), but the initial WACs came out in 1976. When the additional protected classes were added in 2010, OSPI simply tacked those unique issues onto the Sex Equity WACs, which means that schools have had plenty of time to have policies and procedures.

In addition to the WACs, OSPI issued Guidelines in February 2012. The WACs and Policies make it clear that each school district is supposed to have policies on sexual harassment and that these policies are supposed to be conspicuously posted throughout each school building, and provided to each employee, volunteer, and student and that a copy of the policy must appear in any publication of the school or school district setting forth rules, regulations, procedures, and standards of conduct for the school or school district.

Police Responsibilities

The police will have to perform an investigation. Their responsibility is limited to the specific criminal acts that may have occurred. They must determine whether there is probable cause for an arrest and the Prosecutor’s office will make a determination as to whether there is enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that conduct violated a law. If they make this determination, then they will charge the perpetrator and the case will either settle or go trial.

Again, based on the presumption that this involves sexual conduct, the statutes that govern are under RCW 9A.44. The way our criminal law works is that there are degrees of a crime and they are classified as different levels of felony or misdemeanor and they are a different level of felony, so first degree is a felony A, which then means there is a higher sentencing range. There are also misdemeanors which carry a lower penalty the felonies.

Rape of a child and child molestation in the first degree require that the child is under 12, second degree is when the child is between the ages of 12 and 14, and third degree is when the child is between 14 and 16.

Since the student is in high school, there’s a good chance he or she is over 16. In that case, the law that the teacher may have violated would be the sexual misconduct with a minor. It’s a crime in the first degree for a school employee to have sexual intercourse with an enrolled student of the school who is at least sixteen years old and not more than 21 years old, if the employee is at least 60 months (5 years) older than the student. This is a Class C felony. If it is sexual contact as opposed to intercourse it is a second degree offense and a gross misdemeanor.

There are a variety of other laws that could apply, but those are the ones that would most likely apply.

 

Responsibilities of the Parents and the Young Adult/Child

Whenever a person has been a target of sexual violence, it is important that he or she and, when the person is a minor, their parents, advocate on their behalf. The process can be confusing and scary. Police, prosecutors, and the school do not represent the targeted students, even though there is overlap in concern. Parents and students need to get informed about the process, both with the school district and with the police.

One place that parents and students can turn is the Sexual Violence Law Center. This is a great resource to learn about what additional protections might exist for the targeted student, from protection orders, to understanding the confidentiality of records, to understanding rape shield laws (designed to prevent blaming the targeted student because of clothing choices or prior sexual relationships), this website is a great resource and a great resource of resources, including their Know Your Rights Guide (available in English, Spanish and Chinese)

Also, it is incredibly important to communicate in writing. Even if you have a call or in person meeting, follow up that call or meeting with an email confirming what you understood the content of the call or meeting and the next steps. This is important for you, because it will make sure you are clear on the process, but it is also important because written documentation is more likely to produce results partially because it creates a heightened fear of future liability. Hopefully the school district will take all the proper steps, but if they don’t and you follow-up with OSPI or file a civil suit, written documentation will be able to be evidence. Telling someone what someone else said is not typically admissible evidence because it’s hearsay. In addition, Washington State law provides that a “personal representative of the victim’s choice” may accompany him or her to the hospital and to proceedings concerning the alleged assault, including police and prosecution interviews and court proceedings.

As a quick overview, the way the school hierarchy works is (1) responsible employee within the school, (2) school board, (3) OSPI. A report needs to be made to a responsible employee. Who the “responsible employees” are can be unclear, it is not necessarily just a teacher or even a counselor, but unquestionably, the compliance coordinator and Title IX officer are responsible employees. OSPI has a list on their website. For the Bainbridge Island School District, the compliance coordinator and Title IX Coordinators is Peter Bang-Knudsen, 206-780-1072, pbangknudsen@bisd303.org. OSPI’s website also provides a general overview about a complaint process here.

The general overview is that a parent/student can try to deal with the complaint through the school district. Since Bainbridge Island doesn’t have that information posted, it is hard to know what their procedure is, but they are supposed to have an internal appeal process. Once that decision is made, a student can appeal to OSPI. If it gets to OSPI, OSPI will perform its own investigation and issues its own findings. Please note there are some tight deadlines for appealing, 20 days within your final complaint to OSPI. 

An alternative administrative process is filing a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights U.S. Department of Education (OCR). OCR will pursue issues connected to race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and age. Their process for filing a complaint can be found here (and it is available in multiple languages).  Again, there are timelines, typically 180 days (about six months) from the discriminatory incident.

When the Department of Education gets involved they do an investigation and the investigation will typically result in a Resolution Agreement. An example of a resolution agreement can be found here (follow the link under the paragraph to see the resolution letter). The Resolution Agreement involves actions the school needs to take to resolve the structural deficiencies that created a culture and climate that allowed discrimination to occur.

When parents/students pursue resolution through the school, OSPI or the Department of Education, they are pursuing what are called administrative remedies. There is also a private right to sue encompassed in Title IX and the sex equity law, the lawsuits include a right to monetary damages if the school acted with deliberate indifference. A suit can also be filed for negligence on the school district’s part, which is an easier claim to establish than the “deliberate indifference” standard. Civil claims (a lawsuit) can also be made against the perpetrator.

*Note on language: You may have noticed that instead of “victim” or “survivor” I used “targeted student.” I use this language for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to the reality that many people who have been the target of sexual violence do not like the word “victim” or even “survivor.” But perhaps more importantly, using the word “targeted student” more accurately conveys what happens. Many perpetrators are repeat offenders, they actively target/groom the person they want to attack, they do it consciously and one targeted student could easily be replaced by another. It also places the responsibility of the violence on the person committing the violence and not the person who is targeted by the violence. 

Rape Kit Testing – Digging through the backlog

Since at least 2009, we have been aware that police departments routinely do not process rape kits. In 2009, it was  a report noting that Los Angeles County had the largest known rape kit backlog of 12,669 untested rape kits. 

End the Backlog focuses on shining a light on the rape kit backlog. They note that the federal government estimated that hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit untested in police and crime storage facilities.

Of late, the backlog is getting more attention. Law & Order SVU even had an episode that addressed the backlog issue on September 29, 2014. The latest news is a January 4, 2015 report from the BBC, New Hope for Rape Kit Testing Advocates. This report demonstrates what is common knowledge to people who work with sexual assault, many rapists are repeat offenders. Here are some of the facts from the BBC article:

  • Detroit: More than 750 DNA matches were found in CODIS from about 2,000 rape kits.
  • Detroit: 188 serial rapists were identified from the processed kits – they’ve committed crimes in 27 other states.
  • Detroit: Indictments – 14 dismissed by court or prosecutor; 16 guilt by jury; 1 hung jury; 7 not guilty, 44 guilty plea accepted. 60 out of 91 resulted in a conviction or a guilty plea. 
  • Cleveland: After processing 4,300 kits, police have opened more than 231 people have been indited, a third of whom had at least one previous rape conviction.  Most of the remaining cases are still being investigated.
  • Colorado – out of 150 kits tested, they had 24 matches in CODIS.

If you are the victim of a sexual assault, you have to advocate for yourself. Quite frankly, we know from the massive backlog, from the experience of disbelief of those in authority and even friends and family, that we exist in a world were rape victims are not believed, or worse they are believed but pressured to be quiet because of the status of the perpetrator. The awareness of the rape testing backlog and the results from testing create an opportunity for a sea change in attitudes. The results from Detroit alone show that rape case, when proper investigation is done, can result in convictions or guilty pleas.

One great way to become your own best advocate is to empower yourself. Understand the issues. Check out End The Backlog’s resources for survivors. Check out the resources in Washington State. One great resource is Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs. If you need to hire a private attorney to represent you either through the process or with your own case, JELS may be able to help, whether through representation or assistance in finding an attorney who can represent you.

 

High School teachers and coaches and sexual acts with students

A recent article in the Seattle Times, “Interlake High teacher charged in sex case with female student” involves an issue that Justice & Equality Legal Services seeks to address – sexual harassment, which includes sexual assault in the school setting. A teacher having sex with a student in the K-12 setting is considered a criminal act and so there are criminal penalties that exist.

In 2003, the Seattle Times did a series titled “Coaches who Prey, The Abuse of Girls and the System that Allows it.” The series Times found 159 coaches who were disciplined or fired because of sexual misconduct; yet 98 of them continued working with children. According to this series:

Even when school officials find wrongdoing, they often bow to pressure from the teachers union, handing out mild punishments or none at all.

Districts routinely keep investigations secret by failing to document them or by signing agreements with accused coaches promising not to tell. In fact, the Times found 29 coaches who were passed on to new school districts after being disciplined, pushed out or fired for sexual misconduct.

O’Hagan, Maurneen, and Christine Willmsen, “Misconduct often goes unpublished by districts.” The Seattle Times (December 15, 2003). 

The series prompted the 2004 state Legislature to require school districts to disclose information about sexual-misconduct allegations and forbid the districts from entering into agreements to conceal such information — a practice that had been all too common. “Tardy efforts at troubling coaches.” Seattle Times Editorial (July 12, 2006).

 

The investigative report of the Seattle Times did not create a sea change in the policies of school districts in Washington. An Oak Harbor Swim coach made 20/20 when he was convicted of rape in 2010. Over his 30-year career he molested at least a dozen girls.

Now there is the Interlake High School case.

At JELS, we believe that this can change, but it requires the diligence and a the same commitment we ask of our kids around not being bystanders to bullying. The Times 2003 series included an interesting list of “How Parents can spot trouble before it’s too late.”  The recommend be wary of full-body hugs, rides home alone, being aware of cards and gifts, sleepovers at the couches house, even babysitting can be used for grooming, long or repeated phone calls to and from the coach (in today’s age, that should include instant message, snapchats, burnotes, emails, etc.), Out-of-town trips where it is difficult for parents to come along, a child suddenly quitting or losing interest, and coaches who jump from team to team or district to district.

I would also take it a step further and note that if you see these things, whether or not is happening to your child, you have an ability to file a complaint. In fact, since sexual predators typically look for a target that has fewer safeguards, so a student-athlete who has a parent who has to work and misses most practices and/or games, would be an easier target than a student whose has a parent present at practices or games.  You can file a complaint. Title IX complaints specifically can be filed by community members.

If you are aware of allegations of sexual assault, for instance your child tells you that a friend was touched by a couch, contacting police is something else parents should feel empowered to do.

For some reason, with regard to sexual assault more than other issues, people worry about false reporting and the possibility of destroying someone’s reputation more than other offenses. Studies show false reporting is similar to other crimes, which is to say it is very low. In addition, there are protections that exist, police will have to do an investigation, schools will do an investigation. If they feel like there is not enough evidence no report gets filed.

The reality is that kids far more often than not, don’t tell adult figures when sexual assaults occur. There is self-blame, minimizing, shame, and fear, often fed by the perpetrator that when it is their word against the perpetrator that no one will believe the student over the coach. Or that even if they do, if the coach is well-liked in the community that people will chose not to believe the child.

This means, when you hear little things, and you wonder if it’s worth being concerned about, the answer is yes. Put the concern first and figure out if there is anything of substance behind the concern. Most coaches and teachers aren’t sexual predators. Most care passionately about students and would never want to see any harm come to the child. But those who are sexual predators have access to lots of children and are likely repeat offenders, or will be, especially when they realize that their behavior has minimal consequences.

10 Ways to Respond to Another School Shooting Tragedy

There was a shooting today, Friday, October 24, 2014 at a Marysville-Pilchuck High School (which is about 40 miles away from Downtown Seattle). The details will unfold over time.

At this moment, we know (which can always change as the investigation unfolds) that there are two people, including the student shooter, who were killed by the student shooter. The shooter was a freshman, he was apparently a popular kid and a homecoming prince. The other fatality was a female student. There have been some reports that they may have been cousins or that they were romantically involved. Based on what’s unfolding, it would not surprise me if it is a dating violence or family abuse of some kind.

It happened in the cafeteria at about 10:40 a.m. (about the time police got the call).

There were four additional people known to be injured, two girls and two boys. All of these children are in critical condition.

Barely a heartbeat ago, there was another school shooting, this one in early June 2014, at Seattle Pacific University. One college student was killed in that shooting and two other students were injured.

Over the next couple of days and months, we are going to learn about the student shooter. If this story follows the standard narrative, we will learn if he he was bullied, if he engaged in gender-based violence/dating violence, and/or if he had mental health issues.

We will search for reasons/excuses to understand, which in large part is about attempting to make sure we can feel safe, that feel like this won’t happen in our own community.

I hope we will take this moment to look at a bigger picture. To explore what we as a community need to do to make our world a better and safer place. Below is a list of things to do in the wake of this tragedy:

10. Vote: In Washington State our ballots have arrived or about to arrive. On this ballot are two initiatives about guns, I-591 –  (the bad one) vote no – prevents background checks stronger than federal law. I-594 – (the not enough, but every journey starts with a single step) vote yes – Universal Background Checks.

9. Get out the Vote Activities – To quote an image on Facebook, not voting is not an act of rebellion, it’s an act of submission. Make sure you vote, your friends vote, your co-workers vote, friends from synagogue, church, mosque, feminist critical thinking group, etc., vote. Vote for candidates that care about our schools- funding, bullying, and safety. Vote for candidates who believe that believe that the second amendment, like the first amendment can have time, place, and manner restrictions.

8. Push for better mental health resources – Many shootings or connected to mental health issues, dating violence, or bullying and harassment. There are not nearly enough resources readily and easily available for long-term care. These issues should be a funding priority and a priority for us to find innovative ways to deal with issues.

7. Push your school community to do better – It is not just the responsibility of the school to make sure our students are safe. As a community we must support our students and our schools. Make sure to be involved in your PTO, PTSA or any other parent-teach organization. We must be involved in awareness raising within these groups so that parents understand what behaviors are bullying or harassment and what to do when you learn your child is a victim, perpetrator, or bystander of any of these behaviors.

6. Challenge media – We live in a society where too many shortcuts are taken in media, news, online, etc. where sexist, racist, and other prejudicial just spills out onto t.v. Search for positive images of people of color, all women, religions, etc. Reject terms like “wife-beater” to describe a white-ribbed t-shirt. Reject slut-shaming. Seek out positive images and resources that provide a fuller depiction of our society.

5. Push your schools to do better – October is bullying prevention month. Make sure that you schools are doing activities to build empathy and interrupt bullying. Make sure you are aware of you schools policies. In Washington we have model policies for Bullying, Harassment, and Intimidation, if you cannot find your schools policy, look to the model policies, available on the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s website. Here’s a federal government resource: http://www.stopbullying.gov/

On top of bullying laws, we also have laws against discrimination on the State and Federal level. This means that schools are obligated to make sure that schools are safe and there is no harassment based on gender, race, sexual orientation, disability and more. Push to make sure your school has policies, including sexual harassment policies. These are often missing.

4. Push the government agencies involved in supervising our schools do better – On the federal level the Office for Civil Rights is in charge of oversight. In the last couple of years they have increased visibility of the issues. They need to continue the push and sustain in regardless of the elected officials.

On the state level, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is in charge of oversight and they are not doing a great job. The Govern’s office also has an education Ombuds office.

On the local level, the school board has the most power. They adopt/establish the policies and are key for setting the tone of the entire district. Go to school board meetings or at least review minutes and meetings. Submit comments. Make your voice heard.

3. Never stop believing – Never stop believing that the world can change and grow more positive. To quote Margaret Meade:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.

2. Be Brave – challenge yourself & those around you – Students learn from the caring adults in their lives. Watch your own comments – challenge your own internal racism, sexism, able-bodism, and push yourself to do better. Challenge any exaggerated comments you have about being angry enough to hurt or kill someone.

Do not be a bystander when you witness sexism, racism, able-bodism, etc. Model ways to resolve conflict for your children. Model the idea that we will not stand by when we can provide support.

1. Listen to the children in your life and advocate on their behalf when you hear about things that seem off. 

Remember amazing story a while back about a school administer who saw a child walk in with a gun. She talked and listened to the student and he gave up his gun.

Talking and listening, even at this moment where you would think all hope would be lost, matters. It can be the difference between life and dearth.

People, especially our youth, long to be heard and seen and understood. Take the time to listen and support them. Advocate for them. Get them help when they need it. You never know what kind of a difference just taking a little time to listen could have on someone’s life.

 

Federal Guidance on Title VI vs. OSPI WACs

On October 1, 2014, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights issued a Dear Colleague Letter. Dear Colleague letters are the Office of Civil Rights’ efforts to provide guidance for schools on what is needed to comply with federal laws. In this case, the letter focused on legal obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

The timing of this letter is interesting for in Washington, OSPI just went through a rule-making process on our state law that corresponds with the federal law. The proposed WACs are discussed in this blawg. So how do our state regulations compare to the federal guidance? As I noted in the prior blawg, the WACs are woefully inadequate to address remedying the discrimination that exists in our public schools. The Dear Colleague letter and guidance provide clear examples of the issues the WACs should have addressed (technology, teaching, etc.)

The Dear Colleague Letter starts by setting the stage, identifying history and present of unequal access to educational resources. It also discusses some of the factors that can be hard to measure that impact school success, including quality of building, experienced level of teachers, instructional materials and technology, and differences in teacher salaries. The WACs do not discuss this, although arguably that is what was discussed in the law and the WACs do not need to discuss this.

Then the Letter discusses intentional discrimination and identifies the following analysis for determining whether a school district intentionally discriminated in the allocation of its resources:

  1. Did the school district treat a student, or group of students differently with respect to providing access to educational resources as compared to another similarly situated student, or group of students, of a different race, color, or national origin (a prima facie case of discrimination)?
  2. Can the school district articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory, education reason for the different treatment? If not, OCR could find the district has intentionally discriminated on the basis of race. If yes, then:
  3. Is the allegedly nondiscriminatory reason a pretext for discrimination? If so, OCR would find the district has intentionally discriminated on the basis of race.

Then the letter discusses disparate impact. School districts also violate Title VI if they adopt facially neutral policies that are not intended to discriminate based on race, color, or national origin, bud do have an unjustified, adverse disparate impact on students based on race, color, or national origin. OCR applies the following analysis for disparate impact:

  1. Does the school distract have a facially neutral policy or practice that produces an adverse impact on students of a particular race, color, or national origin when compared to other students?
  2. Can the school district demonstrate that the policy or practice is necessary to meet an important educational goal? In conducting the second step of this inquiry OCR will consider both the importance of the educational goal and the tightness of the fit between the goal and the policy or practice employed to achieve it. If the policy or practice is not necessary to serve an important educational goal, OCR would find that the school district has engaged in discrimination. If the policy or practice is necessary to serve an important educational goal, then OCR would ask:
  3. Are there comparably effective alternative policies or practices that would meet the school district’s state educational goal with less of a discriminatory effect on the disproportionately affected racial group; or is, the identified justification a pretext for discrimination? If the answer to either question is yes, then OCR would find that the school disctrict had engaged in discrimination. If no, then OCR would likely not find sufficient evidence to determine that the school district had engaged in discrimination.

One of the major distinctions between this commentary and the proposed WACs is that several changes in the WACs make it sound like OSPI was trying to eliminate the disparate impact standard. That seems contrary to the intent of the state law to create a system that has fewer protections than the federal law.

Then the Letter goes on to discuss school funding. Again, the letter provides more guidance then the WACs.

A. Courses, Academic Programs, and Extracurricular Activities

The WACs have a limited discussion saying that no district shall provide any coursework based on a protected status. The Dear Colleague Letter requires that students have access to, and enroll in rigorous courses are more likely to go on to complete postsecondary education. It also notes that OCR will assess the types, quantity, and quality of programs available to students across a school district to determine whether students of all races have equal access to comparable programs both among schools and among students within the same school.

The Dear Colleague Letter discusses extracurricular activities, especially those that have been shown to support college and career readiness and high academic rigor, and states they must be offered on a nondiscriminatory basis. It notes that there will be a quantitative and qualitative review. The WAC only discusses recreational and athletic activities and states that no one be denied participation in based on a protected class. The focus in the WAC is based on athletics and demonstrates that it is the holdover from the state version of Title IX and providing equal athletic opportunities for girls.

The Dear Colleague Letter captures the intent of the legislation that was passed in Washington, it shows a demonstrated effort to outline for schools how to view their programs and make sure they are provided on a nondiscriminatory basis. It is not detailed and it won’t provide all the answers, but unlike the WACs, it makes an effort.

B. Strong Teaching, Leadership, and Support

The WACs don’t address the problem of the impact of teachers on education. The Dear Colleague Letter does and it notes that ensuring that schools have effective and stable teachers is a major component of ensuring that a school district does not discriminate based on race, color, or national origin. They will oook at turnover rates, teach qualifications, and experiences, school leadership, and support staff.

C. School Facilities 

Again because the WACs use as a starting point the Sex Discrimination WACs and did not actually try to examine the issue of what it means to address discrimination based on additional factors, the only reference to facilities is with regard to recreational and athletic activities. The Dear Colleague Letter addresses school facilities in terms of (1) physical environment – schools should be structurally sound and well-maintained; (2) Types and Design of Facilities – laboratories, auditoriums, and athletic facilities – must be provided on an equal basis.

D. Technology and Instructional Materials

When the WACs were originally written technology was a not an issue, the internet didn’t exist. So when they were simply modified by tacking on the additional protected classes to the existing sex discrimination regulations, there was no consideration of technology – so it’s no surprise the WACs are silent on the issue of technology. The Dear Colleague letter provides guidance that OCR will consider the number, type, and age of educational technology devices will be assessed in determining whether they are provided without regard to race, color, or national origin. They will also look at the size, content and age of a schools library collection considering quantity and quality of materials.

Prevention 

The WACs essentially limit proactive surveys and monitoring to athletics and recreational activity. The guidance of the Dear Colleague Letter notes that the assessment must be broader than recreational and athletic facilities – school districts need to compare how educational benefits and burdens are allotted.

Conclusion

The Dear Colleague letter makes it clear that OSPI is not providing sufficient guidance to assist schools in creating nondiscriminatory schools. A school that relied on the understanding that our state tries to go further in the protection of students than the federal government and relied on the WACs would fail to meet the federal standards.

Information from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction

Recently JELS ent a letter in response to the WACs that OSPI proposed. In the letter, we pointed out that the proposed WACs were not done in a procedurally fair manner (they only gave a limited number of interested parties notice, and the notice they provided allowed only about two weeks to respond during the summer, when a lot of interested parties would likely be unavailable to respond.

The second point we made was that the WACs were bad. OSPI failed to take into account the comments from the first round of drafting WACs. In the first round, they had solicited the feedback of a lot of interested parties. With their help, the first draft of the regulations actually had some kind of hope to achieve the legislative intent, to end discrimination, to close the achievement gap, to improve the school environment for everyone.

For some unknown reason, instead of adopting meaningful WACs, OSPI simply took the WACs that were created in response to the Sex Equity law and tacked on the additional protected classes.

One of the good things that existed in the original WACs was that OSPI seemed to provide some kind of oversight, even if it was more of an illusion than a reality. The proposed WACs basically remove a lot of the oversight. The revised WACs also remove the fact that schools have been required for a long time (30 to 40 years) to have certain policies.

Bottom line, the WACs represent a failure of OSPI to provide real assistance to schools about ways to eliminate discrimination and inequity in schools.

JELS didn’t send the letter because we think that letter will make much of a difference, if all of the organizations involved in 2010 and 2011 weren’t able to make an impact on the WACs, neither will the letter. If seeing how the clarity on the bullying policy and procedures has improved schools ability to address bullying, hasn’t helped, even though both laws were passed/revised at the same time, neither will this letter. JELS simply wants to pay attention and wants to make sure to apply some sort of pressure.

One positive of sending the letter is the automatic email response provided links that aren’t easy to find on their website.

OSPI Nondiscrimination Guidelines for Trans* Students

Last week, JELS published a blawg about OSPI that expressed disapproval of their actions, both in the process they sought to modify the nondiscrimination WACs and in the overall result in the WACs. This week, we give a little praise. In 2012 OSPI created, “Prohibiting Discrimination in Public Schools: Guidelines for school districts to implement Chapters 28A.640 and 28A.642 and Chapter 392-190 WAC.” While this guide is not perfect, there was one section in the guide which I feel was done particularly well: Gender Identity and Gender Expression. In fact, they are done so well that I’m providing them below.

GENDER IDENTITY AND GENDER EXPRESSION
59. What terms are commonly used to describe gender identity or gender expression?
Individuals use a number of words to describe their gendered experiences. Some people may refer to themselves as trans, transsexual, transgender, male-to-female (MTF), female-to-male (FTM), two-spirit, and a variety of other terms. Terminology can differ based on region, language, race, ethnicity, age, culture, and many other factors. Some common terms are defined below.
 Gender identity is a person’s deeply felt internal sense of being male or female, regardless of their sex assigned at birth.
 Gender expression is the manner in which a person represents or expresses gender to others, often through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, activities, voice, or mannerisms.
 Transgender is a general term used to describe a person whose gender identity or expression is different from that traditionally associated with the person’s sex assigned at birth.
 Transitioning is the process in which a person changes their gender expression to better reflect their gender identity.
 Gender nonconforming is a term for people whose gender expression differs from stereotypical expectations about how they should look or act based on the sex they were assigned at birth. This includes people who identify outside traditional gender categories or identify as both genders.

60. Should transgender and gender nonconforming students have the right to express their gender identity in school?
Yes. Washington state law prohibits discrimination in public schools based on gender expression and identity (RCW 28A.642.010). Students must be permitted to dress according to the gender in which they consistently identify and should be addressed and treated using the name and pronouns of their choice (i.e., “he” and “him” or “she” and “her”). School districts are encouraged to adopt gender-neutral dress codes that do not restrict a student’s clothing choices on the basis of gender. Dress codes should be based on educationally relevant considerations, apply consistently to all students, include consistent discipline for violations, and make reasonable accommodations when the situation requires an exception.
61. How should school districts address a student’s name and sex on official records?
School districts maintain permanent student records that include a student’s legal name and legal gender. To the extent that the school district is not legally required to use a student’s legal name and gender on school records or documents, the district should use the name and gender by which the student identifies. School IDs, for example, are not legal documents and should use the student’s preferred name. The school district should change a student’s official record to reflect a change in the student’s legal name or gender upon receipt of documentation that such change has been made pursuant to a court order or through amendment of state- or federally-issued identification. In situations where school staff or administrators are required by law to use or report a student’s legal name or gender, such as for standardized testing, school staff should adopt practices to avoid the inadvertent disclosure of such confidential information.
62. Should schools inform staff, students, or parents about a student’s transgender status?
Information about a student’s transgender status, legal name, or gender assigned at birth may constitute confidential medical or education information. Disclosing this information to other students, their parents, or other third parties may violate privacy laws, such as the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 C.F.R. Part 99). School staff should not disclose information that may reveal a student’s transgender status to others, including parents and other school staff, unless legally required to do so or unless the student has authorized such disclosure.

63. Should a school district require proof of medical treatments as a prerequisite for respecting
a student’s gender identity or expression?
No. School districts should not require proof of medical treatments in order to respect a student’s gender identity or expression. If a school district has an objective basis that would justify questioning whether a student’s asserted gender identity is genuine, it may ask for information to show that the student’s gender identity or expression is sincerely held. No particular type of information (such as medical history information) should be specifically required.
64. Should school districts allow transgender students to use the restroom of their choice?
Yes. School districts should allow students to use the restroom that is consistent with their gender identity consistently asserted at school. Any student – transgender or not – who has a need or desire for increased privacy, regardless of the underlying reason, should be provided access to an alternative restroom (e.g., staff restroom, health office restroom). This allows students who may feel uncomfortable sharing the facility with the transgender student(s) the option to make use of a separate restroom and have their concerns addressed without stigmatizing any individual student. No student, however, should be required to use an alternative restroom because they are transgender or gender nonconforming.
If school administrators have legitimate concerns about the safety or privacy of students as related to a transgender student’s use of the restroom, school administrators should bring these concerns to the school district compliance coordinator. Such privacy or safety issues should be immediate and reasonably foreseeable, not speculative. School administrators and/or compliance coordinator should meet with the student and/or parents to determine if there is a need for an alternative facility. Determination to provide an alternative facility for any student should be on a case-by-case basis.

63. Should a school district require proof of medical treatments as a prerequisite for respecting
a student’s gender identity or expression?
No. School districts should not require proof of medical treatments in order to respect a student’s gender identity or expression. If a school district has an objective basis that would justify questioning whether a student’s asserted gender identity is genuine, it may ask for information to show that the student’s gender identity or expression is sincerely held. No particular type of information (such as medical history information) should be specifically required.
64. Should school districts allow transgender students to use the restroom of their choice?
Yes. School districts should allow students to use the restroom that is consistent with their gender identity consistently asserted at school. Any student – transgender or not – who has a need or desire for increased privacy, regardless of the underlying reason, should be provided access to an alternative restroom (e.g., staff restroom, health office restroom). This allows students who may feel uncomfortable sharing the facility with the transgender student(s) the option to make use of a separate restroom and have their concerns addressed without stigmatizing any individual student. No student, however, should be required to use an alternative restroom because they are transgender or gender nonconforming.
If school administrators have legitimate concerns about the safety or privacy of students as related to a transgender student’s use of the restroom, school administrators should bring these concerns to the school district compliance coordinator. Such privacy or safety issues should be immediate and reasonably foreseeable, not speculative. School administrators and/or compliance coordinator should meet with the student and/or parents to determine if there is a need for an alternative facility. Determination to provide an alternative facility for any student should be on a case-by-case basis.

65. How should school districts address physical education and athletic participation by transgender students?
School districts should allow students the opportunity to participate in physical education and athletic activities in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity. For interscholastic athletics, should any questions arise as to whether a student’s request to participate in sex-segregated activity consist with his or her gender identity is bona fide, a student may seek review of his or her eligibility for participation by working through the Gender Identity procedures set forth by the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) available at http://www.wiaa.com/subcontent.aspx?SecID=350.

66. Should school districts allow a transgender student to use the locker room of their choice? 
The use of locker rooms by transgender students should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, with the goals of maximizing the student’s social integration and equal opportunity to participate in physical education classes and sports, ensuring the student’s safety and comfort, and minimizing the stigmatization of the student. In most cases, transgender students should have access to the locker room that corresponds to their gender identity consistently asserted at school. Any student who has a need or desire for increased privacy, regardless of the underlying reason, should be provided with a reasonable alternative changing area, such as the use of a private area (e.g., a nearby restroom stall with a door), or a separate changing schedule. Any alternative arrangement should be provided in a way that protects the student’s ability to keep his or her transgender status private. No student, however, should be required to use a locker room that conflicts with his or her gender identity.

 

 

Surprise Rule Change from OSPI

Our laws are the often the skeleton of the issues we hope to address as a society. The meat, tissues, blood, etc. are often regulations and case law. In Washington State, we have the Washington Administrative Code (WAC). As defined on the state website, “[r]egulations of executive branch agencies are issued by authority of statutes. Like legislation and the Constitution, regulations are a source of primary law in Washington State. The WAC codifies the regulations and arranges them by subject or agency.”

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is responsible for the WACs that impact schools. In 2010, there were important changes to the non-discrimination in education law and the creation of the harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) law. Initially, OSPI sought wide-community inclusion in the rule-making. Despite this, the rules they issued in December 2010, did not actually incorporate the impact the community provided on how to create nondiscriminatory schools. Instead, the OSPI took the regulations that existed based on Washington’s version (RCW 28A.60) of Title IX (the federal ban on sex discrimination in education) and tweaked it to cover all of the additional classes. These WACs ignored the intent of the legislature, which sought to address systemic discrimination and the consequences of systemic discrimination which resulted in an achievement gap.

Recently, the OSPI made an under-the-radar change to the legislation. I say under-the-radar for a variety of reasons. First, they didn’t reach out to people who had provided input in 2010. Second, they did not provide information through simple mediums like Twitter (where they have an account @waOSPI). They were posting in the timeframe of the Notice, but topics included “5 ways to use social media to connect parents in the classroom,” “Yes! Librarian transforms school bus to deliver books to kids in need,” and “Schools out but kids still need nutrition!” The same is true for their Facebook account (/waOSPI).

Based on a review of the WACs, I think the changes they made are so substantial, and with the exception of requiring that information be provided in languages that are understood by parents or involved parties, weaker than the previous version. One of the biggest changes is radically decreasing OSPI responsibilities. Had they not done this under the radar, I have little doubt that there would have been vocal objections to the changes, particularly the changes in the complaint process.

Between the date of the Notice, July 17, 2014 @ 11:51 AM to the Hearing on August 28, 2014 at 9:00 AM, there was not a single social media announcement about the proposed change.

So what exactly did OSPI set out to do and what did they do? 

Based on the language in the OSPI Notice, they set out to improve the ability to effectively address discrimination and clarify requirements and scope of OSPI and the rules. Here is the language from their Notice:

Purpose of the proposal and its anticipated effects, including any changes in existing rules:
The proposed rules are intended to (1) revise the complaint procedure in WAC 392-190-065 through 392-190-075 to more effectively address allegations of discrimination within Washington public schools; (2) clarify the requirements and scope of OSPI monitoring under chapters 28A.640 and 28A.642 RCW; and (3) increase readability of the rules. OSPI anticipates that the revised rules will result in a less adversarial and more cooperative process to resolve discrimination complaints and will ease the financial and emotional burden on families and school districts when confronting these issues.

Reasons supporting proposal:
The proposed revisions to chapter 392-190 WAC are necessary to provide a more efficient and equitable resolution of discrimination complaints for both school districts and families, and are responsive to concerns and recommendations by stakeholders. The revisions are intended to encourage school districts to resolve concerns about discrimination at the lowest level possible and reduce the likelihood that these matters will be taken to court. Additional changes are needed to increase readability and clarify requirements.

Based on the amended WACs, their goal does not match their notice. From an initial read, it appears as if their main purpose was to make sure that Charter Schools were clearly covered. The rest of the WACs are a mixed bag. Some things are good (like making sure anti-discrimination materials are provided in language parents/guardians understand) others seem like they are attempting to limit liability of schools by intentionally interrupting the reporting up to the higher levels. Below is a essentially a paragraph by paragraph review of the amended WACs.

Note:

  • In the discussion below I typically use “schools” as a shorthand for saying “school district or public charter school.”
  • I use the term “protected class” to stand for “sex, race, creed, religion, color, national origin, honorably discharged veteran or military status, sexual orientation, gender expression or identity, the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability, or the use of a trained dog guide or service animal.”

Purpose -Elimination of unlawful discrimination in public schools – WAC 392-190-005

  • The WACs removed the language that the intent of the chapter is to encompass similar substantive areas addressed by federal civil rights authorities and in some aspects extend beyond those authorities.
  • Tacked on at the end of the section is a paragraph that states that unless otherwise stated, OSPI adopts the definitions, requirements, and procedural safeguards set forth under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • It adds a paragraph saying that OSPI will develop guidelines to supplement the chapter and guide its interpretation and administrative enforcement of the chapters.

Compliance with Federal Law – WAC 392-190-007

This is a new section that says, unless otherwise provided, OSPI adopts the definitions, requirements, and procedural safeguards set forth under Section 504, Title II, Title IX, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. One of the things that is unfortunate about this is that state laws and regulations often go further than federal laws (and in many ways our state laws do, so they are “otherwise provided” in the WACs) but there are places where this may seem to curtail state protections. For example, one of the court cases that provided for more equity in athletics in Washington was based on our Equal Rights Act, not Title IX or the state ban on sex discrimination.

Counseling and Guidance Services 

Counseling and Guidance Services – Course and Program Enrollment – WAC 392-190-010

  • The language here is altered in a way that may have intended to make less legalese, but it shifts it in such a way makes it seem weaker. Instead of saying “No school district shall engage in discrimination” it says they “must not discriminate.” The possible difference is centered around the idea of intention. Schools that cannot engage in discrimination may not do so, even if they did it unintentionally. A school that must not discrimination could argue that they did not engage in behavior intentionally and therefore even though there was a discriminatory result, because there was not a discriminatory purpose they are somehow off the hook for their behavior. This is not necessarily what would happen, but it is worth noting, as in the context of employment discrimination intent is a major factor. Education is supposed to be different than employment (it’s mandatory, the power differential between student and teacher/building/district, etc is so great). Thus, the language that seems like it is shifting focus away from impact to intent raises red flags.
  • There is a similar type of concern in paragraph five, where the is a change from “results” to “has resulted” in a substantially disproportionate number of students. Again, this change is subtle, but it change the idea that the result itself can be looked at to having to focus on whether something created the result.
  • A annual review process has been added. At last annually schools must review student enrollment data within courses and programs disaggregated by sex, race, limited-English proficiency, and disability and determine whether a “substantially disproportionate number of students within these categories are enrolled in a particular course or program.
  • If schools find out that there are there is a substantially disproportionate number of students in a course or program (instead of class), the school may now take “prompt” instead of “immediate” action “to ensure” (as opposed to “as is necessary to assure”) the disproportion is not the result of discrimination.
  • There is an expansion of the areas to look for discrimination, this includes adding identification and selection of students, and course and program enrollment criteria, as well as adding a catch all provision – “other factors related to course and program enrollment.

Training

Training – Staff responsibilities – Bias awareness – WAC 392-190-020

  • The training-Staff responsibilities has changed. It is no longer “in service”. Schools are no longer required to provide bias awareness and elimination training in in service training programs. Instead, schools must offer or provide training to administrators and certificated and classroom personnel regarding their responsibilities under the chapter and raise awareness of and eliminate bias based on the protected categories.

Recreational and Athletic Activities

Recreational and Athletic Activities – WAC 392-190-025

  • There is a strange change of language, instead of maintaining the language “No personal shall… be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or otherwise be discriminated against…” the language has been changed to “school districts and public charter schools must not…. exclude any person from participation in, deny any person the benefits of, or otherwise discriminate against any person….” This is consistent with the changes that seem to be focusing on what the school district actively does instead of focusing on the actual impact, regardless of whether it is the result of intentional or unintentional actions.
  • The WACs now exempt inclusion of “boxing, wrestling, rugby, ice hockey, football, basketball, and other sports in which the purpose or major activity involves bodily contact.” This means, the WACs are changing the culture of creating spaces for girls in athletics and saying that a girl is no longer required to be allowed the girl to join the boys’ wrestling team when there are not sufficient athletic opportunities. It is unclear whether this is consistent with federal law or our state’s equal rights amendment.
  • Again there’s another change in language that appears to weaken the language, “No school district shall” and then clarifying the limited exceptions, to leading with “Except as provided under this section, school districts and public charter schools must not… “
  • The sports regs, which were primarily about sex/gender now add language addressing students with disabilities, saying that if these students cannot participate in existing activities even with reasonable modifications and necessary accommodations even with reasonable modifications a school may offer different opportunities (note the permissive language “may” provide as opposed to “must” provide).

Recreational and athletic activities – Student athletic interest survey – WAC 392-190-040

The change here seems odd, it requires OSPI’s approval to modify or amend the survey instrument, but there doesn’t seem to be anything about what survey instrument that is being modified or amended. It doesn’t say that OSPI has a model survey that schools can amend.

Recreational and athletic activities – Facilities – WAC 392-190-045

While the name of this section was changed to remove “sex discrimination” the overall change seem positive. If facilities are shared, it adds that they must be scheduled equitably.  Absent from this is any discussion about of increasing the accessibility for students with physical disabilities.

Access to Course Offerings 

There are two new sections:

  • Access to course offerings – WAC 392-190-046 – schools must ensure that no student is denied or limited in their ability to participate in or benefit from course offerings based on their protected class.
  • Access to course offerings – student discipline – WAC 392-190-048 – at least annually, schools must review disciplinary data, including but not limited to short-term suspensions, long-term suspensions, and expulsions. The school is required to to determine whether it has disciplined a substantially disproportionate number of students within any of protected classes. If so, they are supposed to make sure that the disproportion is not the result of discrimination.

Access to course offerings – Separate programs or activities – WAC 392-190-050

  • Instead of limiting the age range when p.e. classes can be segregated to grades 7 through 12, they can apparently be separated from preschool on. The standard is also lowered from “clearly be shown” … “to truly constitute the best method  \of providing both sexes, as a whole, with an equal opportunity…” to a lower standard of simply it can “be shown” that maintaining a separate physical education class or activity for boys and girls is the best method…” and now students can be separated if a class or portion of a class deals primarily with human sexuality instead of exclusively with human sexuality.
  • Textbooks and Instructional Materials:
    • Instead of covering any form of instruction provided by a school, it has now been limited to “textbooks or instructional materials, including reference materials and audio-visual materials.” (As a parent with kids in school, I wonder if this is intended to limit school liability in the event that schools use internet based materials.)
    • A screening criteria is created in the WACs.
    • There’s language about books that still contain bias – what is particularly troubling here, is that the initial WACs were adopted in 2010.  Instead of saying that schools should have phased out these books it maintains language. Not only does it maintain the language, but by adding charter schools in the way that it was referenced, it does not acknowledge that charter schools did not exists when the WACs were initial in place and therefor no charter school should have biased materials. But the way this is written, charter schools could potentially get away with having biased instructional materials, arguing that the materials “cannot be replaced immediately.”
  • There is a new section on Discriminatory harassment (392-190-0555).
    • This section specifically states that for “purposes of administrative enforcement of this chapter, a school district or public charter school violates a student’s rights regarding discriminatory harassment, including sexual harassment when…”
      • conduct is based on a protected class
      • the conduct is “sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive that it limits or denies a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the school district’s or public charter school’s course offerings, including any educational program or activity (i.e., creates a hostile environment);  and
      • The school had notice and failed to take “prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.”
    • notice of discriminatory harassment exists when a reasonable employee knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known, about the harassment.
  • Sexual Harassment – Definitions has been changed to remove a section that school districts must be guided by federal and state case law in their interpretation of sexual harassment complaints, etc.
  • Sexual Harassment Policy –
    • for some reason the fact that these policies were supposed to be adopted by June 30, 1995 was deleted. This is problematic because the “must be adopted and implemented” language is maintained, instead of converting to the past tense, “must have,” which makes it seem like it is no longer a violation if the schools do not have a policy.
    • Definitions no longer are required to be consistent with the statute, but instead with the WAC, they don’t have to have district and staff responsibilities or informal grievance procedures.
    • Notification – OSPI is no longer responsible for reviewing school policies.
    • Schools no longer have to make reasonable efforts to inform students and their parents about the district’s policy and procedure. Instead of being required to provide a copy of the policy and procedure, now all districts have to do is provide information in publications.
  • Harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) prevention policy and procedure.
    • For some unknown reason, the requirement to adopt a policy by August 1, 2011, is eliminated. Similar to the sexual harassment policy date deletion, it is still in future tense, and now with no deadline for compliance.
    • OSPI is again no longer responsible for reviewing the policies. Instead, if a written HIB report indicate a potential violation a violation under “RCW 28A.300.285 “(so much for clarity – looking this up it is the bullying statute) and the staff member who receives the report must notify the district employee designated under WAC 392-190-060 (the unlawful discrimination WACs). If in a bullying complaint there is a belief that it is unlawful discrimination, it also must be referred to the designated employee.

Compliance and Complaint Procedures (WAC 392-190-060 through 392-190-0751)

There are a lot of changes to these sections. I find most of the changes to be concerning. Some continue to perplex me. I have never understood, and will never understand, how organizations like OSPI and schools can obstinately refuse to do what it takes to create schools where all students learn. These revisions seem to work to take OSPI off the hook for any potential liability and/or minimize the role OSPI plays, while also weakening the complaint procedures in gender. Again below is more detailed section by section description.

Designation of responsible employee – Notification – WAC 392-190-060

  • The amendment removes “immediately” with regard to the superintendent designating at least on responsible person. It is unclear why they would remove the requirement to “immediately” and did not at least replace it with a timeline as to when someone has to be appointed.
  • The amendment also strikes out “appeal” when saying that school have to notify students, parents, guardians, and employees of the complaint and appeal process. It is unclear if this is intended to mean that schools do not have to describe the appeal process or if the appeal process is considered part of the complaint process and therefor it must be disclosed.
  • The responsible employee is also apparently no longer responsible directly to the superintendent.  – This raises a question of whether there is a deliberate attempt to buffer the superintendent from the “should have known” category. It also raises questions about who the responsible employee is accountable to.
  • There’s also an internal inconsistency, in 392-190-060 it says that this person is supposed to investigate any complaint. Then under 065, it implies that a an employee who receives a complaint must make their own determination and then if they decide it meets the criteria, then they are supposed to pass it along to responsible employee to investigate. This kind of internal inconsistency not only confuses things, but it creates additional barriers to investigation of reports and instead of being facilitators of reporting issues, school employees becomes gatekeepers that could prevent a complaint from moving forward.
  • A positive change is that the language was changed regarding notification, the best change is that it requires the notice to be provided to parents and guardians in a language they understand.
  • A nondiscrimination blurb is now required in written announcements, notices, recruitment materials, employment applications, forms, and other publications. This blurb is supposed to say the school doesn’t discriminate based on the protected classes and provide the name, title, office address, and telephone number of the designated employee(s) of the nondiscrimination statute and under Section 504 and Title IX. This notice also has to say that they provide equal access to the Boy Scouts under the Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act.
  • There is also now explicit language that schools are also prohibited from adopting any policy, procedure or practice that would limit a person’s right to file a complaint or have the effect of discouraging any person from utilizing the complaint procedure. Schools must not intimidate, threaten, coerce, or discriminate against any individual for the purpose of interfering with any rights under the nondiscrimination regulations (WACs) or because the individual has made a complaint.

Compliance – Complaint Procedure – WAC 392-190-065

  • One of the big changes here is that it seems to go from saying this is the procedure to saying that schools must establish a procedure that meets the outlined minimum requirements. Reports still have to be written and describe specific acts, conditions, or circumstances. The written requirement is similar to what it was previously. But it is a barrier. It’s not like a student can schedule a meeting with a counselor or a teacher and complain about something and believe that this is a complaint and it will be sent up the chain. No, a written report has to be filed.
  • Then there are several new sections – including that schools can establish a complaint deadline, although fortunately the deadline cannot be less than a year after the occurrence. There are also protections surrounding the deadline if the school misrepresents that the resolved the problems; withholds information that was required to be provided in section 005 (which really doesn’t make sense because this is purpose section, not the notification section).
  • Complaints can be delivered to any school administrator or any designated responsible employee. An annoying thing here is that if a school administrator gets a report, they are not required to turn this report over to the designated employee, instead they determine whether it meets the criteria and then they must promptly notify the designated responsible employee.
  • Upon receipt of this written report they designated responsible employee is required to give a copy of the school’s discrimination complaint procedure (note it doesn’t require this any time someone complains, this is after someone understands the policies enough to actually know that the written report must be filed).
  • The language that the investigation should be done as “expeditiously as possible” is removed, leaving only that it has to be done within 30 calendar days (as a side note for bullying, harassment and intimidation the report has to be done within 5 days). There is also language added to allow for an extension of time based on the vague “exceptional circumstances related to the complaint require an extension” standard. It does require a response to go to OSPI.
  • The response guidelines are modified to now require a summary of the results of the investigation, whether the school district has failed to comply, notice of the right to appeal. One notable difference is that this changed the standard from “whether the school district denies the allegations” to “whether the school district or public charter school has failed to comply with this chapter.”
  • Now instead of needing to “eliminate any such act, condition, or circumstances within the school district ” a school district must simply “correct the noncompliance.”
  • They eliminated the starting point of the timeline being when the response is mailed to simply being the response date – seemingly irregardless of when the school provides this to the person who complained.
  • A requirement is added that the response must be in a language the complainant can understand. While this is good, it should be more expansive and state that it should be in the language the complainant understands, or if the complainant is a student, a language their parent understands (although that can be problematic for LGBTQ kids and possible dangers at home related to their identity).
  • It is also disturbing that they have added a line that if the complainant and the school resolve the complaint, “no further action is necessary under this section.” This means if an issue comes up about say pervasive sexual harassment and one student complains. The school is aware that it is a wide-spread problem, but some sort of agreement is made with regard to a particular victim. Based on this additional sentence, the WACs seem to be advising schools that they do not need to do any additional work to improve the school environment.
  • After all these requirements for written complaints, they do say that schools can come up with a method for an informal complaint procedure (including verbal), but that if these informal processes exist, schools must notify complainants about their right to file a formal complaint.
  • One new feature is that schools are required to provide a copy of the response to the office of superintendent of public instruction.

Compliance – Appeal procedure – School District or Public Charter School – WAC 392-190-070

This whole section was re-written. Originally it provided clear guidance on when and how an appeal could be made to the school board. An appeal required the board to schedule a hearing to commence within 20 days and required a complainant and the school to be allowed to present witnesses and testimony. A decision had to be made within 10 days. The revision eliminated all of that. Now it is vague and unclear – the complaint procedure of the school must provide an option to appeal to a “party or board that was not involved in the initial complaint or investigation.” A time limit may be established to file appeals, but it cannot be less than 10 days; and the school must provide a written appeal decision to the complainant within 30 days.

Compliance – Complaint procedure – OSPI – WAC 392-190-075 – 

This provision is also re-written and clearly limits the responsibilities or action that OSPI must take. In the prior version, if a complaint was appealed to OSP, OSPI must conduct a formal administrative hearing in conformance with the Administrative Procedures Act. There was also a clear timeline (20 days) in which the appeal had to be made. There was a requirement of de novo review. Now, when OSPI receives the appeal (which has greater requirements, some that may be impossible for a student/parent/guardian to meet, like providing the address of other the other student(s) involved), OSPI may initiate an investigation. There are no guidelines as to when they may or may not perform an investigation. If OSPI investigates and finds a problem they will include corrective actions deemed necessarily to correct any non compliance.

Mediation – WAC 392-190-0751

This is an entirely new section, which is basically that a school and the complainant can use the services of a trained mediator. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is worth noting, mediation is required in family law cases, except if their is domestic violence. The same logic would apply for a lot of discriminatory settings – that the power differential and the dynamics involved in the violence are simply to great to allow for meaningful mediation.

Monitoring Procedures- Results – WAC 392-190-077 – changes here are minimal.

Monitoring Appeal Procedure – WAC 392-190-079 – changes are minimal.

Violations – Permissible sanctions – WAC 392-190-080 – changes are minimal.

Concurrent claims and remedies – WAC 392-190-081 – changes are minimal.

Provisions that were completely deleted:

The WACs didn’t provide anything other than the name and the WAC number. I have included a description of the provision they eliminated.

Counseling and guidance – sex discrimination – Duty of certificated and classroom personnel – Coordination of effort – WAC 392-190-015

This part of the statute has been in existence since at least 1989. It barred all certificated and classroom personnel from limiting opportunities based on sex. It also required encouragement of students to pursue nontraditional occupations for men and women.

Recreational and athletic – Sex discrimination – Equal opportunities – Separate teams – WAC 392-190-026

This provision required sports teams and programs be equally open to participation by qualified members of both sexes. For grades 7 through 12, a school district could maintain separate teams for each sex if: it truly constituted the best method to provide equal opportunity to participate in the sports or games of their choice, and at the same time time, a test of substantial equality(which it defined) between the two programs was met.

Recreational and athletic activities – Elementary and secondary level – WAC 392-190-035

This was the provision that when interscholastic, club, or intramural athletics are provided at the K-6 level, that schools will provide equal opportunity and encouragement for physical and skill development. At the 7-12 level interscholastic and intramural opportunities must also be provided equal opportunity and encouragement.

Monitoring results – Complaints issued by superintendent of public instruction – WAC 392-190-078

This clarified that OSPI could initiate a complaint and outlined the procedure for an OSPI complaint against a school district.

Title IX, Harassment, Bullying, and Illegal Acts

In 2011, an important and still relevant article was written by Nan Stein, Ed.D. & Kelly A Mennemeier, B.A., “Addressing the Gendered Dimensions of Harassment and Bullying: What domestic and sexual violence advocates need to know.” The point of the article was that in the recent wave of concern over bullying, the concept of harassment is often folded into this. The problem with folding these two issues together is that there are federal bans on discrimination in education, bans that already include harassment.

The problem is, in the pressure over bullying, the stronger tool of the federal law prohibitions against discrimination are often ignored. Citing an Office of Civil Rights “Dear Colleague” letter to school districts across the country, the article points out:

The label (used by the School District) used to describe an incident (e.g., bullying, hazing, teasing) does not determine how a school is obligated to respond. Rather, the nature of the conduct itself must be assessed for civil rights implications. So, for example, if the abusive behavior is on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or disability, and creates a hostile environment, a school is obligated to respond in accordance with the applicable federal civil rights statutes and regulations enforced by OCR

The article discusses how state laws can vary. In Washington, our anti-bullying law contains an anti-harassment provision, making it even more likely that civil rights violations will be lumped into the general policy of bullying. For example, I was looking at the website for Bainbridge Island Schools. On that they reference a case, Webster v. Bainbridge Island School District, Kitsap County Sup. Ct. Cause No. 10-2-00346-2. In the Supplemental Letter to Verdict provided by the School District, it is clear that Title IX issues came up (the Title IX claim was dismissedby the court because it did not find, “deliberate indifference” but the special verdict form found the school district negligent.  In the thoughtful press release of November 6, 2013, the link provided by the school district is the report form for Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying.

On the “For Families Directory” there is no information about Title IX. In fact, when doing a search for “Title IX” in the menu bar the search result returns, “There are no records.” A search for Title IX without quotes returns a few items, but nothing about Title IX. This is with a school district that has been found negligent and is attempting to remedy issues. While I only looked at Bainbridge Island for this particular post, I have no doubt that if I looked at other school districts it would be the exception that provides a clear explanation of when students behaviors violate state laws, when they violate federal laws, and when they are criminal behaviors.

Back to School Basics on Harassment & Bullying in K-12 Public Schools

School starts in Washington State for most public schools this week. In Washington, we have almost 300 school districts and they educate more than one million students by more than 51,000 classroom teachers.

In each school district there are multiple schools (often referred to within the school administration culture as buildings). Each district is supposed to create its own policy for dealing with issues around discrimination and bullying. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which is the agency that oversees K-12 public education in Washington, has established model policies and procedures (more details below).

Each school district is supposed to identify a compliance office, both for Title IX and for bullying, harassment, and discrimination (you are correct if you think there are overlaps between Title IX and harassment and bullying). The compliance officer is supposed to be the primary contact regarding the anti-harassment, intimidation, and bullying policy, and the person who receives copies of all complaints. They are responsible for insuring the implementation of the HIB policy and procedure. As of the writing of this post, the list of compliance officers available is for the 2013-14 academic year. Technically this information is supposed to be provided in materials that go out to parents, but the reality is that it is often not provided. In fact, all too often, compliance officers do not even know that they are compliance officers. Despite the existence of a compliance officer, all staff are responsible for receiving oral and written reports.

Each school district is required to have their own policy and their own set of procedures for how to deal with bullying and harassment. The district policy has to either mirror the State Model Policy and the State Model Procedures or somehow improve upon the state policies. The District Policies can be incredibly hard to find. One tip that can help, is that they often use the same naming convention as the Statewide Policy (Policy No. 3207) and Procedure (Procedure No. 3207P). This means they have to have mechanisms for reports of harassment and bullying to be reported. They must have procedures for investigating the reports, timelines for investigating and reporting – the model policy requires a timely response – the whole process of complaint, investigation (5 days), report (2 days after the report), and appeals (file within 5 days, response within five to ten days). The focus and commitment is on making sure that schools are safe learning environments.

State Model Policy Highlights: 

“Harassment, intimidation, or bullying” means any intentionally written message or image—including those that are electronically transmitted—verbal, or physical act, including but not limited to one shown to be motivated by race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, including gender expression or identity, mental or physical disability or other distinguishing characteristics, when an act:

  • Physically harms a student or damages the student’s property.
  • Has the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s education.
  • Is so severe, persistent or pervasive that it creates an intimidating or threatening educational environment.
  • Has the effect of substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school.

Nothing in this section requires the affected student to actually possess a characteristic that is a basis for the harassment, intimidation, or bullying.

State Model Procedure Highlights: 

  • Any school staff who observes, overhears, or otherwise witnesses harassment, intimidation, or bullying or to whom such actions have been reported must take prompt and appropriate action to stop the harassment and to prevent its re-occurrence.
  • Reports may be filed anonymously, confidentially, or non-confidentially, meaning the student may chose to disclose her/his identity.
  • Anonymous reporting is a situation where a someone witnesses issues within the school, but for a variety of reasons, including not wanting to become a target of the bullying, the student wants to do it anonymously. When a report is anonymous, the possible responses to the bullying will be enhanced monitoring of an area (i.e., a locker room during 5th period). Unless something is discovered through this enhanced monitoring no discipline will be done based on anonymous reporting.
  • Confidential reporting allows a student to keep their identity secret while discussing the specifics of an incident. Similarly to anonymous reporting, the school may respond by enhancing monitoring of problem areas. The school may also do safety planning with the student being harassed or bullied and seek to come up with more individualized responses, but no discipline will occur unless something is discovered through the enhanced monitoring.
  • Non-confidential reporting allows for the possibility of discipline to occur based on the reporting.  School districts still need to be descrete with the information, restricting the information to those who need to know.

State Model Policy Investigation Requirements (quoted from the Model Policy):

All reports of unresolved, severe, or persistent harassment, intimidation, or bullying will be investigated with resonable promptness. Any student may have a trusted adult with them throughout the report and investigation process.

a. Upon receipt of the Incident Reporting Form that alleges unresolved, severe, or persistent harassment, intimidation or bullying, the school or district designee will begin the investigation. If there is potential for clear and immediate physical harm to the complainant, the district will immediately contact law enforcement and inform the parent/guardian.

b. During the course of the investigation, the district will take reasonable measures to ensure  that no further incidents of harassment, intimidation, or bullying occur between the complainant and the alleged aggressor. If necessary, the district will implement a safety plan for the student(s) involved. The plan may include changing seating arrangements for the complainant and/or the alleged aggressor in the classroom, at lunch, or on the bus; identifying a staff member who will act as a safe person for the complainant; altering the alleged agressor’s schedule and access to the complainant, and other measures.

c. Within two (2) school days after receiving the Incident Reporting Form, the school designee will notify the families of the students involved that a complaint was received and direct the families to the district’s policy and procedure on harassment, intimidation, and bullying.
d. In rare cases, where after consultation with the student and appropriate staff (such as a psychologist, counselor, or social worker) the district has evidence that it would threaten the health and safety of the complainant or the alleged aggressor to involve his or her parent/guardian, the district may initially refrain from contacting the parent/guardian in its investigation of harassment, intimidation, and bullying. If professional school personnel suspect that a student is subject to abuse and neglect, they must follow district policy for reporting suspected cases to Child Protective Services.

e. The investigation shall include, at a minimum:

• An interview with the complainant.
• An interview with the alleged aggressor.
• A review of any previous complaints involving either the complainant or the alleged aggressor.
• Interviews with other students or staff members who may have knowledge of the alleged incident.

f. The principal or designee may determine that other steps must be taken before the investigation is complete.

g. The investigation will be completed as soon as practicable but generally no later than five (5) school days from the initial complaint or report. If more time is needed to complete an investigation, the district will provide the parent/guardian and/or the student with weekly updates.

h. No later than two (2) school days after the investigation has been completed and submitted to the compliance officer, the principal or designee shall respond in writing or in person to the parent/guardian of the complainant and the alleged aggressor stating:
• The results of the investigation.
• Whether the allegations were found to be factual.
• Whether there was a violation of policy.
• The process for the complainant to file an appeal if the complainant disagrees with results.

Appeal Process – must appeal to the district superintendent within 5 days of receiving the written decision. Can then appeal to the school board by filing a written notice to the secretary of the school board on or before the fifth school day following the superintendent’s decision. The appeal must be heard on or before the 10th school day after the notice of appeal is filed.

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