TAMPA — Students in Hillsborough County either don't know how to respond to sexual harassment or were confused this year when asked if they knew.
Either way, the district is taking steps to remedy the problem.
Officials will question a sample of students when they return to school to try to find out why only 41.7 percent agreed with the survey statement: "Students at this school know how to report sexually inappropriate behavior."
Deputy superintendent Jeff Eakins said the response on the most recent climate survey exists even though 81.1 percent said they have an adult at school whom they can talk to if they have a problem. "There's a little bit of a contrast there," Eakins told the School Board on Tuesday.
Board members said students might have an adult they can seek out about academic issues, while not knowing what to do if they experience sexual slurs or a physical assault.
The district is involved in an open investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights concerning the training it gives students about Title IX, which bans discrimination and harassment in schools that get federal dollars.
A 2011 consent agreement requires Hillsborough to poll students every year to make sure they understand their rights.
But instead of a separate survey, the district added a 16th question to an existing climate survey.
Eakins said he wants a better understanding of the low response. "Our first focus will be to select some schools, especially schools where the numbers might have been low, and talk to students, ask them, 'How did you interpret this question?' " he said.
Regardless of what officials find out, Eakins said the human resources department is moving ahead to improve the orientation students receive about sexual harassment. They should be able to answer two questions, he said: "What is it, and how do I report it?"
The district will produce three videos, each age-appropriate for elementary, middle and high schools. There will be increased training for administrators and a new component of training for teachers.
In other action, district officials defended the suspension and planned firing of five teachers who did not obtain credentials to teach students with limited English skills. All five were warned repeatedly that they were out of compliance with the state requirement, chief human resources officer Stephanie Woodford said.
Her department is working to improve compliance, as a lack of credentials at one point cost the district as much as $60,000 a year in state funding.
Training is free, she said. This year "we offered 150 classes with seats for 35 teachers in each class."
The five who were suspended without pay, pending termination, can reapply if they update their credentials, Woodford said.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @marlenesokol.