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Hillsborough County has been under federal review for sexual harassment policies -- for years



TAMPA — For four years, the Hillsborough County school district has been the subject of a federal review of its sexual harassment practices. But the action has taken place well under the public’s radar, and little is known about the circumstances that prompted it.

The matter received little if any media attention in 2007, when a female student complained of harassment at Middleton High School; or in 2009, when the district was notified that the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office was conducting the review.

Nor was there any publicity in 2011, when the district entered into an agreement with the Department of Education to resolve the case by requiring dozens of steps be taken to make sure students’ rights were protected.

But the case is still open, and the agreement is still in effect, federal officials confirm.

School district officials, interviewed shortly before the winter vacation, had little to say about the federal case. Mark West, who recently replaced the retiring Charles Rayburn as general manager of employee relations, said he was not familiar with the matter that is referenced in this sentence in the federal order:

“By July 31, 2011, the district will expunge the female student’s educational records of any discipline related to her reporting the 2007 incident at Middleton High School.”

And Rayburn did not return a reporter's calls.

It's not even entirely clear if the Middleton incident prompted the probe. Federal officials, who would not discuss the case because it is till open, said such cases are initiated for a number of reasons: A call from a parent or community activist, or an unusually large number of grievances filed.

Here's what is clear:

The 2011 agreement lays out many steps the district is supposed to take to comply with Title IX, the body of federal law that protects students from sexual harassment and discrimination. The order addresses training given to employees, orientation given to students, clarification of the grievance procedure and a lot of documentation.

But don't assume the deadlines are absolute, said Stephen Hegarty, the district's spokesman. As with any such federal review, he said, the district takes a step, submits its report to the federal government and waits for verification and approval before moving on to the next step.

This much is clear: West has been designated the district's Title IX compliance officer, taking over for Rayburn. And the district appointed Felicia Sable as an administrator on special assignment to focus on the Title IX complaints.

Just how many such complaints come into the district each year?

In the 12-month period ending in July, there were 42 complaints, Hegarty said. Of them, 27 were from students and 15 from school staff.

It says this in the school district's policy manual:

"All written complaints alleging violations of Title IX of the Florida Education Equity Act, regardless of resolution at the individual school level, shall be forwarded to the Board's compliance officer [West]. The Board's compliance officer or designee will maintain all such written complaints as well as the written response to/resolution of such complaints. These documents are public records and shall be available for inspection."

The Tampa Bay Times has requested the past year's complaints and will follow up when they become available. The Times has also requested an interview with Sable.

West said the district has complied with the sections of the order that require students in middle and high school to be instructed in what sexual harassment is and how to report it.

“That’s part of our orientation process, and it has been anyway,” he said. “Each school has a different process. Some use assemblies, some have videos.” Such material is covered in teacher training as well, he said.

Federal officials would not say how unusual it is for a school district to come under this type of resolution order.

They did release these statistics: The education department’s Office of Civil Rights, which is overseeing this case, received 2,912 complaints nationwide in the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30 alleging Title IX violations. Since April 2011, the civil rights office has resolved 97 complaints that included sexual violence claims. Forty-one were at post-secondary institutions.

[Last modified: Thursday, January 2, 2014 2:45pm]


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