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Hillsborough schools’ handling of sexual harassment under federal scrutiny

The development comes after a Title IX complaint by a student featured in a Tampa Bay Times investigation.
Madisyn Slater poses for a portrait at Julian B Lane Riverfront Park on Monday, June 21, 2021 in Tampa.
Madisyn Slater poses for a portrait at Julian B Lane Riverfront Park on Monday, June 21, 2021 in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times (2021) ]
Published Apr. 21|Updated Apr. 22

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights plans to investigate Hillsborough County Public Schools over the district’s handling of sexual harassment, federal officials said this week.

The inquiry comes after a Tampa Bay Times investigation showed how Hillsborough’s response to sexual misconduct at Blake High School left students feeling belittled, dejected and punished.

Related: Read the entire Times investigation, "Students Shouldn’t Be Scared.”

Education officials plan to assess the district’s compliance with Title IX, the federal law that requires schools to protect students from sexual harassment.

“The Department takes any allegation of sexual harassment or retaliation seriously,” a department spokesperson said in a statement. “We are committed to making sure schools are safe places to learn and are free from sex discrimination or retaliation, and encourage anyone who might have experienced harassment to file a complaint as soon as possible.”

One of the students featured in the Times’ stories, Madisyn Slater, filed a civil rights complaint with the education department in October, alleging she faced retaliation for reporting a Blake teacher who made her uncomfortable. The department sent Slater a letter this week dismissing her individual complaint as untimely.

But, the letter noted, the department still would probe the issues she raised — by taking a different approach.

The department told the Times that even though it dismissed Slater’s complaint, the agency will investigate her concerns — as well as any other current sexual harassment issues — as part of an ongoing monitoring agreement with the district.

Hillsborough County Public Schools, the nation’s seventh largest district, has been subject to the monitoring agreement with the education department since 2011 for not following Title IX. The agreement stemmed from an investigation that found the district retaliated against a student who reported that a teacher was having sex with another student.

The federal agency required Hillsborough to make numerous changes and said the district would remain under scrutiny until it came into compliance with the law. But while the agreement remained open, the monitoring appeared to go dormant — until now.

“This is an unusual and very positive development,” said Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women who has spent more than 30 years studying sexual harassment in schools. “It seems to me they are finally having to stick to the resolution agreement.”

In a statement to the Times, Tanya Arja, a district spokesperson, did not comment on the education department’s investigation. She said Hillsborough has complied with the monitoring agreement and hasn’t heard from the department’s Office for Civil Rights in nearly a decade.

“Hillsborough County Public Schools continues to work proactively to ensure all students know how to report unwanted behavior,” Arja said.

Slater’s problems with the district started last year.

In February 2021, she reported a teacher at Blake High for making sexual comments. Later, other students made similar reports. But the school waited more than two weeks before calling the police and placing the teacher on leave. The students felt confused and unheard by the process. And Slater came under unusual scrutiny.

The Times obtained text messages from an assistant principal to one of Slater’s teachers in which the administrator instructed the teacher to keep a close eye on her. The assistant principal added that Slater “hides behind being good.”

The teacher, who was aware of Slater’s report, told the Times she felt the messages — and what would happen next — were retaliation.

Not long after, a Blake security guard caught Slater vaping on campus. The guard searched her backpack and found she had a coach’s identification badge. The school called the police and suspended her for 10 days. After her suspension, the school told her not to return and to instead finish her classes online. Police filed a petty theft charge over the identification badge, which was valued at $1. The family worried about the case, but it appears prosecutors are not pursuing it.

Meanwhile, district and police investigations bore out the students’ concerns about the teacher, and she eventually resigned.

Several months later, Slater filed her retaliation complaint with the federal education department. The department investigates only individual complaints if they are made within 180 days of the alleged Title IX violation. So the department closed it.

Slater said she thinks the agency should consider changing its deadline.

“They’re dealing with children for the most part, and it’s hard to come to such a big decision like that,” she said.

Slater was one of at least two former Hillsborough students to bring concerns to the federal government over the past year. Another Blake High graduate filed a complaint with the education department in late July and alleged district officials discounted sexual harassment issues he reported in 2019. But his complaint was dismissed in early August, also for not falling within the 180-day window.

If you need help:

The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay offers services to those who have experienced unwanted sexual contact. You can access sexual assault services 24/7 by calling 211 or visiting www.crisiscenter.com. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 911.

The ACLU offers a fact sheet to help students understand their Title IX rights, which you can access here. Know Your Title IX offers resources to help students understand their rights under Title IX, which you can access here.

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