Sunday, April 22, 2018
Education

Hillsborough students unsure how to report sexual harassment

TAMPA — Only four in 10 students at Hillsborough County's middle and high schools say kids know how to report sexually inappropriate behavior, despite a 2011 federal agreement that was meant to make sure they did.

When asked to respond to the statement, "Students at this school know how to report sexually inappropriate behavior," 42 percent agreed, according to a Hillsborough County School District survey that had a 91 percent response rate. The rest disagreed or weren't sure.

"Forty percent isn't where we want to be," said district spokesman Stephen Hegarty. "We're going to consider that a baseline," and look for ways to improve.

The lowest percentages from individual schools were 27 at Blake High School, where a security officer was fired this year after allegations he had sex with a student, and 26 at McLane Middle School.

At Brandon High School, where a cheerleading parent accused a coach of an inappropriate remark and said she got little support from the administration, 34 percent agreed with the statement. The coach admitted using profane language but was cleared of the other allegations.

It was 32 percent at Armwood High School, from which the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office was recently called in response to a sex act in a restroom.

Sexual harassment, which often goes hand in hand with bullying, is prohibited at federally funded schools under Title 9, which also covers equity in sports.

Surveying students on whether they know their rights under Title 9 is one of many requirements the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights detailed in a resolution the district signed in 2011.

That document stemmed from a 2009 compliance review. While no one would say what triggered it, the resolution mentions a 2007 incident at Middleton High School. A student was suspended that year after reporting what turned out to be a verified case of a teacher having sex with another student.

Seven years later, despite federal oversight, 36 percent of Middleton students, 6 percent lower than the district average, agreed that fellow students know how to report sexually inappropriate behavior.

The federal resolution's many conditions include making sure students at each school know whom to consult if they believe they have been harassed. At Hills­borough schools, it's the principal, Hegarty said.

Shortly after signing the 2011 resolution, the district appointed a specialist to oversee sexual harassment complaints, which must be handled in a manner specified under the federal law.

But that specialist was later reassigned. Mark West, the district's general manager for employee relations, now oversees Title 9 compliance.

The low percentages on the survey's sexual harassment question contrast with other questions' responses, which were generally positive. When given the statement, "My teachers treat me fairly," 73 percent agreed. More than 76 percent agreed that "My school does not tolerate bullying," and 83 percent agreed that "I can get help if I need it."

Only one other statement drew a response rate almost as low as the one on sexually inappropriate behavior: "Students at this school treat others with respect." Agreement was 45 percent.

Lisa Maatz, policy adviser for the American Association of University Women, said the results are cause for concern.

But the lone survey question does not adequately test students' knowledge or assess the district's compliance, she said.

"They are assuming the survey definition of sexually inappropriate matches what kids' definition is. It's one question and a poorly worded question. And still, it gave us results that are troubling."

She said it's better to devote a separate survey to sexual harassment, or perhaps sexual harassment and bullying.

Hegarty said such a step is unlikely because "survey fatigue is a major factor," and the district stands by the climate survey.

Maatz also said that, with some schools and districts employing full-time Title 9 officers, she was surprised to hear those duties fall to West and the principals.

"He's the head of HR, with how many employees?" she said. "Being compliance officer is just part of what is already a very big job. This man doesn't have the time, and neither do principals."

Hegarty said it's possible that, along with other ongoing changes in human resources, the district would add a position to focus on sexual harassment.

At the very least, officials will re-examine the training they give principals and teachers, he said.

With numerous publicized cases of sexual violence at colleges, the federal government has been paying more attention to Title 9, said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center.

But the spotlight has been on higher education more than kindergarten through 12th grade, despite studies that show the problem is prevalent in the younger grades as well.

"Crossing the Line," a widely cited 2011 report by the American Association of University Women, showed nearly half of all students in grades seven through 12 experienced some form of sexual harassment in a single school year, and 87 percent said it had a negative affect on them. Those responses came from a sample group of almost 2,000 students from around the country.

Harassment covers a wide variety of actions, from groping to name-calling to demeaning rumors on social media.

Experts say the federal government offers resources, through a website called notalone.gov, to regional offices that can assist with training.

"We understand schools have a lot going on," Chaudhry said. "But it's worth the investment for school districts to keep students and staff safe, and avoid liability. Students won't learn if they don't feel safe in school."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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