Separately, the department is working to finalize regulations spelling out how federally funded schools must handle such allegations. Those rules are expected to be published in the coming weeks, with women’s groups, universities and others highly critical of the proposed version.
Most of the attention regarding Title IX investigations is focused on universities and colleges, but the law also applies to elementary and secondary schools.
The department said Wednesday that it would conduct compliance reviews of K-12 schools and school districts. Officials did not say how many they planned to conduct but said they would originate in all 12 of the department’s regional offices. A spokeswoman said districts would be chosen based on data collection and reports of problems from parents, the news media and others.
In announcing the initiative, the department cited its resolution last year of complaints against the Chicago Public Schools, where it found “tragic and inexcusable” conduct by the district in handling sexual harassment and violence complaints and systemic failures to protect children.
The department also cited a 15-fold rise in complaints over a decade. Civil rights data collection indicates that in the 2015-2016 school year, some 9,700 claims of sexual assault, rape or attempted rape were reported in public elementary and secondary schools.
“This disturbing change is a matter of serious concern and requires immediate attention,” Kenneth L. Marcus, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said: “We hear all too often about innocent children being sexually assaulted by an adult at school. That should never happen. No parent should have to think twice about their child’s safety while on school grounds.”
The department also plans to make more information about sexual assault available to school districts and families, and to increase reporting requirements for districts.
Wednesday’s announcement comes as the agency is preparing to finalize regulations governing how schools handle allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
The final regulation is expected to include a narrow definition of sexual harassment, which would limit the types of complaints schools must investigate. It also is expected to give students accused of sexual assault new rights, such as the right to cross-examine their accusers.
The group Know Your IX, a project of the advocacy group Advocates for Youth, put the new announcement into that context.
“We wish we could celebrate this new initiative from ED,” the group said on Twitter. “But we aren’t going to praise DeVos and Marcus for enforcing a law that they are simultaneously ripping to shreds. This PR stunt won’t soften the blow that survivors are about to face when DeVos drops her Title IX rule.”