K-12 schools keep mishandling sexual assault complaints. Will new Title IX regulations help?

Federal investigations uncovered schools that failed to meet the most basic legal requirements — like having someone in charge of Title IX.
Image: A young girl walks down a hallway of school lockers as a shadowy figure approaches from behind.
Hundreds of lawsuits filed since the beginning of 2018 allege that K-12 schools failed to protect students from sexual assault and harassment or mishandled incidents that came to light.Julien Posture / for NBC News

For months, her attacker’s friends tormented her. They called her a “crazy bitch” and a “porn star” on social media. One suggested that they show her “what rape actually is,” according to a lawsuit the Colorado student filed this year against her school district.

In the summer of 2017, the girl, a high school junior referred to as Jane Doe in court records, reported that she’d been sexually assaulted the previous year by a classmate, identified by the pseudonym John Smith. Smith later pleaded guilty to assault in juvenile court, and was placed on probation and required to participate in sex offender therapy. Yet throughout the 2017-18 academic year, his friends made Doe’s life miserable at Glenwood Springs High School, she says in her suit filed in the U.S. District Court of Colorado against the Roaring Fork School District.

Doe and her parents told administrators multiple times about the harassment — including that one of Smith’s friends threatened to strangle her — but the school did nothing to stop it, according to the civil complaint. Frustrated, Doe’s parents met with administrators in March 2018. When they emailed the next day to ask what steps the school had taken to protect Doe from harassment, according to the suit, an assistant principal wrote back, “the school has taken no actions.”

Glenwood Springs High School in Glenwood Springs, Colo.Google Maps

“From a parent’s standpoint, from a father’s standpoint, my blood curdles in anger,” Doe’s father told NBC News. “I have so much anger toward people who didn’t protect kids and follow through with consequences.”

Rob Stein, the district’s superintendent, said he could not discuss the case due to federal privacy law. He said that Doe’s complaint offers her “side of the story,” and that “the school district always investigates incidents of sexual harassment or assault according to district policy and state law.” The lawsuit is pending.

Doe’s complaint is one of at least 330 suits filed across the United States since the beginning of 2018 alleging that K-12 public and charter schools failed to protect students from sexual assault and harassment or mishandled incidents that came to light, according to an NBC News count based on court records.

The lawsuits include one from a high school student in Georgia who said she was expelled after a student allegedly forced her to perform oral sex; she said the school’s principal didn’t believe her account and said he thought she wanted to do it for the boy’s birthday. In another case, a Michigan district was accused of failing to investigate complaints that a fifth grade teacher was inappropriately touching boys; the teacher was later convicted of molesting seven children.

And in Texas, the parents of a 4-year-old girl who was allegedly sexually assaulted by a classmate at school said in a lawsuit that the district initially lied to them about what happened, did not tell them they needed to file a formal complaint to force the school to investigate, and did not look into the matter for several weeks.

The Georgia and the Michigan lawsuits are still pending; the Texas lawsuit was dismissed after a judge ruled that the school’s response had not subjected the student to additional abuse.

In recent years, colleges have faced intense public scrutiny around how they handle students’ reports of sexual violence, leading the Department of Education to unveil regulations this month that create new standards for how schools must respond under the gender equity law Title IX.

But K-12 schools are often left out of this conversation, even though students reported about 9,700 incidents of sexual assault, rape or attempted rape at elementary and secondary schools in the 2015-16 academic year, according to the most recent federal data.

While the new Title IX regulations include a framework for how K-12 schools should respond to reports of assault and harassment, victims advocates and education experts say that public schools have fewer resources than colleges and less institutional expertise to investigate claims. These advocates and experts point out that many K-12 schools were already not following federal rules on responding to Title IX claims, so they doubt that new government rules alone will improve the handling of sexual misconduct allegations. And they warn that continued lack of attention to Title IX by these schools will leave the youngest and most vulnerable students unprotected.

“It’s just not a priority until an incident occurs and the school gets bad publicity,” said Joel Levin, co-founder of the advocacy group Stop Sexual Assault In Schools.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks about the coronavirus at the White House on March 27, 2020. DeVos imposed new Title IX regulations this month.Alex Brandon / AP file

The problems are documented in the 43 investigations that the Education Department completed last year into how K-12 schools dealt with sexual misconduct, NBC News found.

Despite a long-standing federal requirement that schools publicly post their sexual harassment policies, a school district in Mississippi couldn't say whether its policy was available anywhere besides on a flash drive, according to one of the investigations. And while all schools are required to have a Title IX coordinator, federal officials discovered that the person an Alabama district identified as its coordinator no longer worked there.

“We have, in fact, talked to employees who were the Title IX coordinator and they didn’t know that was assigned to them at some point,” said Maha Ibrahim, a staff attorney with Equal Rights Advocates, a nonprofit that has studied how California schools deal with sexual misconduct.

School leaders and attorneys representing schools and victims say part of the challenge is a lack of resources. And it’s a problem they expect to worsen with a looming recession threatening to cut budgets for public schools.

Like ‘stepping into a different decade’

After Jane Doe went on a date with John Smith in October 2016, when she says he sexually assaulted her, she didn’t tell anyone. But it soon became clear that something was wrong. At volleyball practice, Doe cried without explanation, her parents said. Teachers told her parents that she seemed to be struggling in class, according to her lawsuit.

In the summer of 2017, Doe told her therapist about the assault and then reported it to police. The district attorney’s office told Glenwood Springs High School in September that it was prosecuting Smith on charges of sexual assault, Doe’s suit states.

Smith’s friends began harassing Doe soon afterward, according to her suit, by following her in the hallways, motioning like they would punch her and accusing her of “causing drama.” In December 2017, the same day as a court hearing in Smith’s case, he placed a suction cup dildo on his car, drove around the school’s parking lot and posted it to Snapchat, according to Doe’s family, who felt he was targeting Doe.

Doe and her parents complained to multiple administrators, her lawsuit states, but the school didn’t enact a safety plan to stop the behavior, and her depression worsened.

As Doe suffered through repeated nightmares about people attacking her, her mother stayed up late, sitting in bed, doing research about Title IX on her phone. Doe’s mother frequently woke up Doe’s father — “You’ve got to see this,” “You’ve got to hear this” — eager to relay what she’d just learned.

“I just can’t believe how many cases and how many cities and how many places where the situation is the adult in charge does not step forward and act on behalf of the students,” Doe’s mother said. “It seems like the victim is typically revictimized.”

Doe’s parents eventually learned that the Roaring Fork district had policies in place requiring administrators to investigate assault and harassment allegations, prepare a written report for the superintendent, and if necessary, hold a hearing to determine a student’s guilt and punishment. None of that happened in Doe’s case, according to her lawsuit. Doe’s family said the district’s Title IX coordinator has never spoken with them.

“They needed to take action in some way, and they chose not to,” Doe’s mother said of the district.

In court filings this month, the district disputed the accusation that it failed to act, and said most of the offensive comments and threats from Smith and his friends, including the dildo incident, do not count as sexual harassment. “The comment that a student would ‘strangle’ Ms. Doe, while disturbing and inappropriate, is not indicative of ‘sexual harassment,’” one of the district’s court filings states.

“It feels like you’re stepping into a different decade,” said John Clune, Doe’s lawyer. “It seems like the K-through-12 schools are a number of years behind even understanding the issues.”

Higher ed woke up, K-12 didn’t have its ‘Oh, no’ moment

In the mid-2000s, when Clune began representing sexual assault victims in cases involving college athletes, he had to educate judges and school attorneys on the basics of Title IX, he said.

All schools that take federal funding are required under Title IX to respond to allegations of sexual harassment and assault involving students, the Supreme Court ruled in a series of cases in the 1990s. The Education Department has issued guidance to schools since the Clinton administration explaining that they must have a process to investigate and resolve student complaints about sexual misconduct.

High-profile sex abuse scandals on college campuses, including those involving assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, athletes at Baylor University and college student Brock Turner at Stanford University, combined with nationwide activism by students, served as wake-up calls to higher education. Around the same time, the Obama administration launched a White House task force focused on sexual assaults on college campuses, and publicized the names of universities the Education Department was investigating for Title IX violations. Universities responded by boosting the cadre of administrators hired to handle these cases, sending them to trainings and hiring additional consultants.

But when it comes to K-12 schools, “They didn’t have one of those ‘Oh, no’ moments of realizing they’re on the hook,” said Daniel Swinton, vice president of the Association for Title IX Administrators, a professional trade group.

Without public attention focused on how K-12 schools adhere to Title IX, the schools often lack staff hired and trained to deal with sexual misconduct. Even districts considered to be ahead of the curve may still only have one person focused on Title IX.

“Our district is pretty unique in Utah because I exist — my position exists — and it didn’t exist until five years ago,” said Tina Hatch, the Title IX coordinator for the Salt Lake City School District.

Hatch is the only Title IX officer for the district’s 23,000 students. That’s about the same as the undergraduate enrollment at the University of Utah, which has a Title IX coordinator, three deputies and eight consultants in its equal opportunity office. Hatch said she can’t handle all of the cases related to Title IX, so she conducts annual training for campus administrators to handle less severe incidents, and to send cases involving more serious offenses to her.

In many districts, the role of Title IX coordinator is assigned to another administrator, like the superintendent or the human resources director, who may not have time to ensure everyone in the district is trained in legal requirements for handling sexual misconduct cases.

“The schools that get into more challenges and complaints are the ones who name someone as Title IX coordinator who doesn’t have the proper training — it’s just a name to meet the black-and-white requirements to have someone appointed,” said Jill Yonkers, a New York-based attorney who has represented school districts. “It really should be someone who is trained. They must know the Title IX requirements. That’s really the most important part.”

Trump administration’s new rules

Education Department officials argue that provisions in the new Title IX regulations clarify K-12 schools’ duties and will ensure that they comply. For example, after an assault is reported, the Title IX coordinator must speak with the alleged victim about supportive measures available to them.

“With clear legal obligations like this, any member of the public who sees that a school is violating the rules can call the school’s attention to the violation or file a complaint with OCR,” said Angela Morabito, a department spokeswoman, referring to the Office for Civil Rights. This will make it “more likely that K-12 schools will understand the importance of the role of their Title IX coordinator,” she said.

The department also said in February that as part of a Title IX initiative focused on K-12 schools, it plans to launch sweeping investigations of school districts, known as compliance reviews, to examine how these cases are handled. Department officials have not said how many or which schools will be investigated.

In September, a compliance review of Chicago Public Schools determined that the district mishandled sexual violence cases for years, leaving teachers who harassed students to stay on the job, and often didn’t complete investigations of abuse cases. The district, the nation’s third largest, had no Title IX coordinator from 1999 through 2018.

The Education Department ordered the district to ensure there were no conflicts of interest with employees handling harassment and abuse cases, and to beef up efforts to inform students and parents about their Title IX rights. In response, Chicago Public Schools created a systemwide office dedicated to sexual misconduct and Title IX, with 38 staff members.

But the Education Department has also faced criticism for its Title IX changes. The new regulations, which go into effect in August, will limit investigations to a more narrow defintion of sexual harassment. Advocates worry that will give administrators an excuse not to act.

“If they maintain you can’t file a Title IX complaint unless the case meets a certain threshold, then it gives the schools an opportunity to just ignore them,” said Levin, of Stop Sexual Assault In Schools.

‘It is unbelievable to experience the injustice’

After John Smith took a plea deal in April 2018, the spring of his senior year, Glenwood Springs High School administrators barred him from going to prom. In response, students circulated a petition demanding that Smith be allowed to go, and to block Doe from attending, according to the lawsuit.

Smith wasn’t allowed to attend prom, but he graduated with his class that semester. Doe, who was a junior at the time, transferred to a different high school that spring to get away from the harassment, her family said.

After graduating, Doe had hoped to go to the University of Northern Colorado, where her parents and brother had gone. But she wanted to get farther away from her hostile peers, so she decided to attend college out of state. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, her parents recommended that Doe stay in her college town rather than quarantine at home — they worried the anxiety of returning to her hometown would be too much for her.

“Our daughter's treatment from the school has altered our respect and trust in any relationship we have here,” her mother said. “It is unbelievable to experience the injustice that has permeated every ounce of our lives.”

Doe’s parents are planning to move out of town in the next few years. They hope that coming home to see them will be less stressful for Doe if she no longer has to return to the small town that her family feels turned its back on her.