Client Alert: Secretary DeVos Announces New Civil Rights Initiative to Combat Sexual Assault in K-12 Public Schools
By: Amber Attalla
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced yesterday a new Title IX enforcement initiative, led by the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), to combat the rise of sexual assault in K-12 public schools. The initiative will conduct national reviews to study how K-12 schools and districts are handling sexual assault cases, enhance OCR’s enforcement of Title IX in both elementary and secondary public schools and strengthen the ability of schools to respond to all incidents of sexual harassment and assault. While this new initiative does not apply to private schools that do not receive federal funding, it may establish a standard of care for private schools alike.
Title IX requires that schools and districts take appropriate steps to address sex discrimination. The requirements of Title IX apply to incidents of sexual misconduct, including incidents that involve both student-on-student misconduct and staff-on-student misconduct.
In her Wednesday announcement, DeVos cited how two sexual harassment complaints in Chicago public schools were handled as an example of “systemic and significant deficiencies” that required federal follow-up and an investigation. “The number of K-12 sexual harassment and violence complaints filed with OCR is nearly fifteen times greater than it was a decade ago. This disturbing change is a matter of serious concern and requires immediate attention,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth L. Marcus. “Secretary DeVos has directed OCR to focus our enforcement, technical assistance, and data-gathering activities on this issue, and we are going to make it a priority going forward.”
In contrast to the student-on-student sexual violence that’s the primary concern on college campuses, there’s a particular focus in this new initiative on cases of sexual assault that involve school staff and personnel. To that end, the new initiative builds on the Department’s work to implement the “Pass the Trash” provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which prohibits schools from assisting an individual in obtaining new employment if the individual has engaged in sexual misconduct with a student or minor.
It’s not clear what this federal initiative means for the upcoming, much-anticipated rules about sexual harassment and assault the Trump administration is due to release for Title IX any day now, which covers both K-12 and higher education.