in K-12 Settings

"Developing a policy and keeping that policy clear, available and transparent to all members of the district community is key to keeping students safe."
- Julia Delacroix
Associate Editor for Teaching Tolerance 

The Role of Schools in Educating Students on Title IX

When K-12 schools fail to address sexual assault in a way that helps the survivors, parents and students must take matters into their own hands. Sophia Harbison, a survivor of sexual assault in high school, shares her experience and describes how her school stood by and failed to help her. Joel Levin, whose daughter was sexually assaulted on a high school field trip, discusses ways that schools can change to help their students. He also highlights what organizations like as his own, Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, can do to aid students in need.

Silently Struggling: Students' Need for Title IX Support in K-12 Schools

“I didn’t get the help I needed.”

Sophia Harbison was a high school sophomore when she was raped by her ex-boyfriend. Her school told her to drop her case and move on because there was a lack of evidence in the police investigation, but the mental trauma and social rejection stayed with her. 

Harbison, now in college, says that her parents, friends and teachers blamed her for the incident. “It really messed me up.”

Harbison is one of countless victims of sexual assault in K-12 schools whose cases do not get resolved despite Title IX laws.

Title IX is a federal law in the United States that prohibits sex-based discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal funding and, among other things, mandates protections against sexual violence and harassment in educational settings. If effectively implemented in K-12 schools, students and staff would be well-informed about their rights and protections. They would also receive adequate resources for support, such as trained staff to address issues of sexual violence and develop preventive measures against sexual assault. These measures include emphasizing consent education for all students and staff. However, Title IX Coordinators in K-12 schools are frequently overburdened and understaffed, unable to give each case the attention it deserves. 

Recent research of court cases by NBC News reveals a disconcerting pattern. Namely, NBC reports, "At least 330 lawsuits have been 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." These lawsuits show that sexual violence is a profound issue within the K-12 education system, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Many cases go unreported, and survivors often suffer in silence.

Joel Levin is the co-founder and Director of Programs for the national nonprofit organization Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS). It is dedicated to dismantling the culture of silence surrounding sexual assault in educational institutions. SSAIS is also credited for launching the impactful #MeTooK12 campaign in 2018.

The Leadership Board at SSAIS includes the nationally renowned attorney, Karen Truzskowski, who recently represented Brenda Tracy, a sexual assault survivor and activist, in her suit against Michigan State University. It also includes Meghan Joyce, the founder of The UnSlut Project, among other influential leaders.

Levin highlights the troubling reality that many cases of sexual violence in K-12 institutions go unreported. "There's a lot of inhibition about reporting to schools,” he said. Children don't believe school officials will come to their aid.

According to an NBC News report that details a high school student’s lawsuit against her school district over the mishandling of sexual assault, her mother said, “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.” She goes on to say, “It seems like the victim is typically revictimized.” 

The absence of protection for K-12 students under Title IX can be attributed to several factors. For example, a lack of resources and outdated training for K-12 staff lies at the heart of the problem. Unlike their collegiate counterparts, K-12 schools often struggle to provide adequate support and services to survivors. According to the American University School of Education, “by relying largely on property taxes to fund schools, which can vary widely between wealthy and poor areas, districts create funding gaps from the word go.” This results in an unequal allocation of funding.

Also, according to Levin, in many small districts, "The designated Title IX Coordinator is like a part-time job. It's a task given to someone who has a completely different role." This problem is exacerbated by the absence of comprehensive training, leaving staff ill-prepared to handle these sensitive matters effectively.

The rights and protections of minors are stricter than those of college-aged students. Therefore, as Mandy Hambleton, Vice President of ATIXA, explains about sex education and case reporting, "Some states have prohibitions and some states have requirements, and that all looks different across the country as to what you can and cannot present to students."

Unlike the college anti-rape movement, the K-12 movement initially lacked outspoken survivor advocates. Minors feared punishment and retaliation for speaking out, impeding the development of a high-profile campaign for accountability. Harbison says that she was mistreated by her teachers and peers after speaking out. “You hear your name when you're walking in the hallways. People are whispering. They stare at you and then you hear this person hates you. I'm like, okay, that's not helping me.”

K-12 cases also receive far less media coverage than college and university cases. This discrepancy affects public awareness and the urgency with which schools address these issues. Likewise, K-12 schools often mislabel sexual harassment. According to Ms. Magazine. “Because schools nationwide have mischaracterized sexual harassment as ‘bullying,’ thereby de-gendering it, they sidestep their obligation to address the sex-based harassment under Title IX.” 

Luckily, there has been advancement in finding solutions.

Victim advocacy groups like SSAIS and RAINN can step in to train K-12 schools when internal administrators cannot. They bring valuable expertise and experience, ensuring survivors receive the support they desperately need.

To ease the burden on Title IX Coordinators, K-12 schools can conduct annual, updated training for other staff administrators. These sessions can equip them to handle less severe incidents and ensure that the most serious cases are directed to the main Title IX Coordinator, who can provide specialized support.

Schools can also consider the proactive side of the equation. Comprehensive education can help prevent these incidents from happening in the first place.

“If I knew what Title IX was, I feel like my experience in school could have been so much different,” Harbison said.

Rebuilding K-12 Environments in the Shadow of Mishandled Sexual Assault Cases

Victim advocacy groups play a pivotal role in the lives of sexual assault survivors and their families. They provide valuable resources and support at a very difficult and vulnerable time. Joel Levin of SSAIS talks about his organization's mission to proactively educate students, families and schools about Title IX protections, and Mandy Hambleton of ATIXA speaks about the need to revamp the systems in place under Title IX to protect students. They offer insights on the need for enhanced education and resources in the K-12 environment.

Andrew Stovenour
Video Lead
Siani Nunez
Text Lead
Micah Balobalo
Audio Lead
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