The Education Department has seen a spike during the past year in the number of civil rights complaints filed against K-12 schools for allegedly mishandling reports of sexual violence. It’s one sign that the national debate about sexual assault on college campuses is raising awareness about the problem among younger students and their families.
But K-12 students who report sexual assault at school are often penalized for doing so, activists and federal officials say, pointing to cases in which victims of alleged sexual assault have been disciplined. A report of sexual assault necessarily means that the person going to authorities must admit that sexual contact happened, and if school officials don’t believe that the sex was non-consensual, then the reporting victim can get in trouble for engaging in sexual activity while at school, which is often in violation of school rules.
“The ways that schools punish kids for what happens to them, because they themselves were victims but their schools don’t treat them that way, I find so retrograde,” said Catherine Lhamon, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights. “I wish it were unbelievable, but we keep seeing it.”
Lhamon pointed to a 2010 case in which a 17-year-old Texas student reported that another student raped her in the band room. School officials, relying on a police investigation that determined that the sex was consensual, decided that the girl and her attacker had both violated the district’s policy against “public lewdness.” As punishment, both students were sent to the same alternative school.
“She saw her attacker more often than she would have had she not reported,” Lhamon said. Lhamon’s office investigated and in 2012 issued a letter finding that the district, Henderson Independent, had violated the girl’s Title IX rights. The school district signed a resolution agreement outlining the steps it would take to improve its policies and procedures for addressing sexual harassment and assault. The district also agreed to expunge the girl’s discipline record.
Cari Simon, a lawyer who has represented college and K-12 sexual assault victims from across the country, said she’d like to see school systems adopt amnesty provisions to protect students who report sexual assault from being punished as a result.
Francisco Negron, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, which represents thousands of school districts nationwide, said that just because a student makes an allegation, that doesn’t mean that the allegation is true. School officials are often in the difficult position of trying to suss out what really happened between two people, each of whom tells a different story, he said.
“It is a very tough situation for school districts,” he said.
Dea Goodman, of Sterling Heights, Mich., said her 15-year-old daughter was unfairly expelled last year after reporting an assault because school officials believed the alleged attacker’s claim that the encounter was consensual.
Goodman filed a Title IX complaint against Warren Consolidated Schools, and the Education Department responded in October by opening a formal investigation. The investigation is still open.
In May 2015, school administrators called Goodman’s daughter into the office at Cousino High to ask her about rumors that she had been having sex in a car in the school parking lot. The girl reported that during school hours the day before, a 17-year-old senior had forced her to perform oral sex in a car in the school parking lot, according to a police report. The boy had locked the doors, she said, and she felt she couldn’t leave.
“I said stop this is gross nasty etc,” she wrote in a statement at school that is reproduced in a police report on the incident. “He said oh well.”
In an interview, the girl said she felt manipulated: The boy asked her to join him while he went to get a pair of shoes from a car, she said, and she hadn’t expected anything sexual to happen.
The Washington Post generally does not identify victims of sexual assault.
The boy admitted the encounter but said it was consensual, something they had planned together, according to the police report. On the boy’s cell phone, police found a 15-second video showing the girl performing oral sex in a car, taken on the date of the alleged assault.
Because the girl was younger than 16, she was not able to legally consent to sex under Michigan state law. But the boy was never charged: The Macomb County prosecutor denied a request for an arrest warrant, citing “prosecutor discretion, consensual act.”
The school suspended both students. The boy was allowed to graduate. Goodman’s daughter was expelled for 180 days and is being homeschooled while she tries to find another school to attend.
“I feel like I’m in a prison,” she said by telephone. “I just want this all to be over with. I just want to be a normal kid doing normal things.”
Joseph Konal, the chief academic officer for Warren Consolidated Schools, said the discipline process worked properly. He declined to comment on why the girl was expelled, but said that details in the police report “should clear up any misconceptions about the allegations of an ‘assault.'”
“School environments are very close-knit communities in many ways, particularly in this era of social media,” Konal wrote in an email. “The District is confident that the students and parents at Cousino High School know the truth behind this matter and are not at all concerned that either of the students were treated unfairly.”
Goodman said her daughter’s case sends a message to other victims of assault “not to report it, because if you do, you’re going to get expelled.”