My kids’ school let out for the summer this week, and as I drove by the locked doors today I was overcome with a warm feeling that comes when you know your children were able to learn in a safe environment. Our client, Rachel Bradshaw (in previous communications about this case Rachel was referred to as “Faith” to protect her privacy while this matter was under OCR investigation), used to think that she was safe at school too, until that feeling was shattered after she was sexually assaulted by another student. Instead of supporting her or taking steps to support Rachel's ability to learn, her school responded to the rape by exiling her to a disciplinary program with her attacker, where she had to see him daily.
Rachel, along with the ACLU and ACLU of Texas, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Right (OCR), and this week, OCR issued an important decision finding that Rachel’s school violated her civil rights when it failed to address her complaint appropriately. The civil rights in question are Rachel's right to an education free from sex discrimination and free from retaliation, guaranteed to her by Title IX, the federal law guaranteeing gender equality in education. The law turns 40 this week.
OCR found that the school acted improperly because, instead of doing its own investigation into Rachel’s complaint, it simply relied on the police’s decision not to initiate criminal proceedings. Under Title IX, schools have an independent obligation to investigate whether sexual harassment, including assault, has occurred. In light of its failure to investigate, OCR further concluded that the school’s placement of Rachel in a disciplinary program was discriminatory.
The OCR decision enforces Title IX’s promise of equality by requiring the school district to take specific actions to remedy the problems in the way it handles assaults. These include expunging Rachel’s disciplinary placement records, involving a Title IX Coordinator, staff and administrators, parents, and students in developing strategies for educating the school community about issues relating to sexual harassment and violence, developing a new set of Title IX procedures and policies subject to OCR’s oversight and review, and training staff to report incidents and respond appropriately.
These requirements, and the others contained in the decision, send the strong message that schools must take proactive steps to make sure that staff members know how to handle incidents of sexual violence correctly. Schools must do their own investigations of Title IX complaints, and cannot punish victims of sexual violence. While the decision is specific to this case, other districts can examine it to understand what went wrong at this school, and to assess what they can do to make sure that victims of assault in their districts are not treated the way Rachel was.
Much attention has been paid in recent years to the problem of sexual violence on college campuses. A number of court cases and OCR investigations, including one that ended this week involving Yale University, have led to important reforms and increased accountability for the way colleges prevent and respond to sexual assault. But while these are positive steps, the appalling problem of gender-based violence and harassment of younger students cannot be ignored. Too many schools respond to kids' reports of sexual assault by other students by blowing them off, or worse, punishing the victims.
Title IX guarantees the civil right to learn free from sexual violence. By enforcing that right with a meaningful decision, OCR has reminded schools of what it means to create a safe environment for learning. And this is something that every student, parent, and educator can celebrate.
Find out more about schools’ obligations under Title IX and students’ rights here.