TAMPA — By some estimates, the odds are staggering: Close to half of all middle and high school students will experience some form of sexual harassment in a single school year.
Yet, despite those reports, and a federal investigation that dates to at least 2009, Hillsborough County school district leaders have been low-key about the issue.
There was little to no publicity when the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights initiated its compliance review in 2009; or in 2011, when that agency entered into a resolution agreement that called for dozens of changes in Hillsborough.
"Our perspective was, let's get to work on what it is we need to do," said Mark West, who recently became the district's compliance officer as part of his duties as general manager of employee relations. "We started with what it is that was required, and established a process that we have in place."
A number of unrelated incidents triggered the federal review, district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said. In one case at Middleton High School, a student was initially disciplined for spreading rumors about an incident that turned out to be true.
Federal officials said they cannot comment because the case is still open. The 2011 agreement, which is viewable online, required the district to destroy the disciplinary records of the Middleton student.
The agreement also requires other things. The district must make sure students are made aware of what sexual harassment is under the federal Title IX law, train teachers in how to recognize and report it, and make records of its investigations available for public inspection.
Title IX, more commonly known for its impact on women's sports, forbids discrimination or sexual harassment in any school that accepts federal money.
The harassment need not be physical. It can include inappropriate speech or name calling. School officials go through a checklist of questions to determine if the incident was likely a Title IX offense. An act that qualifies is sexual or based on sex-stereotyping; unwelcome; severe, persuasive or persistent; and has an adverse affect on a student's opportunities at school.
In the 12-month period ending in June 2013, records show there were 27 complaints districtwide. More than half occurred in elementary schools, often resolved with parent conferences, offers of counseling and adjustments to supervision.
The federal agreement also requires the district to survey students each year on whether they feel protected against Title IX harassment. A question on the issue was added to the student climate survey this year.
Understanding Title IX can help protect students who are mistreated, said Neena Chaudhry. senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center. "A lot of what is characterized as bullying also violates civil rights laws," she said.
But, she said, although the federal civil rights office has repeatedly issued guidelines to combat Title IX violations, some school districts are slow to respond.
Authors of a study in 2011 by the American Association of University Women — which estimated 48 percent of students had experienced sexual harassment in 2010 — said not enough attention is paid to the issue. Instead, they said, school officials have focused on bullying in the years since the Columbine shootings.
But Chaudhry and West said the two issues are closely linked.
"I see it as a form of bullying because harassment is typically an ongoing thing, unless it is a severe," West said.
"We've all been through school. We remember what it was like. In this day and age, I think we have gotten better at separating bullying from sexual harassment, defining what it actually is and addressing it."
Reports, which West is charged with collecting, come in a variety of ways, he said. Some come through a system for reporting bullying. Others come from teachers, parents and counselors.
To prevent harassment, students are addressed at the beginning of each school year in the classroom and in assemblies. The format varies, depending on the age of the children and the climate of the school, he said.
"Something as cut and dry or specific as touching, I think we've given students a pretty clear message," West said. "This is my body. You don't touch. Wanted, unwanted, whatever.
"What we're really working towards is the verbal, and that goes to the culture of our school, of our society. That's a hard thing to fight."
As a principal, he said, "I always wanted to make the school setting the safest place that a kid can feel like they have. They may not have it at home. They may not have it in their community and they may not have it in their church. But when they come to school I want to make sure that they're safe and comfortable with an adult."
West said it's not necessary for students to be familiar with terms such as "compliance officer" or "Title IX." Chaudhry disagreed. "My son, who is 6, knows what it is," she said.
As with many issues involving education, West advises parents to communicate as often as possible with their children and the school. Ask questions without over-reacting, he said. Share information with the teachers so they can be more vigilant.
"You can talk about any situation: Drugs, cheating, gossiping," he said. "And that includes bullying. If kids feel uncomfortable with it on the inside, they should tell you."