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.