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Schools keep punishing girls — especially students of color — who report sexual assaults, and the Trump administration’s Title IX reforms won’t stop it

Tyler Kingkade | August 14, 2019

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Early in the morning on Nov. 7, 2017, a teacher noticed a 14-year-old girl crying in the hallway at Carol City High School in Miami-Dade County. The girl, who was later referred to in court papers as Jane Doe, reportedly told the teacher, “I think I was raped.”

Moments later, Doe went to the assistant principal’s office to tell administrators about the three boys who she said sexually assaulted her in a school bathroom. A school police officer questioned Doe, a Latina ninth-grader, and asked her to write a statement about what happened. Later that day, Carol City High administrators decided the event was consensual. They suspended Doe and the three accused boys for 10 days, noting that the students had violated rules against “inappropriate sexual behavior” on campus, according to the state attorney’s office.

“School is supposed to be a resourceful place, somewhere you can trust,” Jane Doe, now 16, told The 74. “That wasn’t what it turned out to be. It turned out to be somewhere where they just turned their backs against you.”

The scenario that played out at Carol City High mirrors cases around the country. A school in Piscataway, New Jersey, handed a 10-day suspension for “disorderly conduct” to a black girl who said she had been sexually assaulted on a bus. After a girl in Tucson, Arizona, said that she had been raped, the school district suspended her for “public sexual indecency.” A Brooklyn, New York, high school suspended a 15-year-old female black-Hispanic student “with well-documented developmental disabilities” who was sexually assaulted by a group of boys, according to the complaint, because administrators considered it “consensual sexual conduct on school premises.” At least one of the accused male students was later charged with sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a child.

“These discriminatory responses from schools are far too common,” said Shiwali Patel, an attorney for the National Women’s Law Center. “Particularly towards girls of color and especially black girls, who — because of harmful race and sex stereotypes — are too often disbelieved, misperceived as the initial aggressor when they defend themselves against harassment, face minimization of their harm, or are blamed for their victimization.”

The Miami-Dade County Public Schools said it investigates sexual assault allegations “fully” but declined to discuss its policies further. The Florida School Boards Association, the Florida Association of School Administrators, Florida Association of School Superintendents, and National School Boards Association all declined to comment for this story.

The 74 reviewed 26 cases in which girls complained they had been the victim of sexual misconduct and were subsequently punished either because administrators thought the acts were consensual or because the victim violated a school rule such as sharing sexually explicit photos with peers.

Schools are required under the gender equity law Title IX to investigate allegations of rape and to combat sexual harassment. Every school receiving federal dollars must name a Title IX coordinator to be trained to deal with these cases.

Yet documents in these cases reviewed by The 74 reveal a similar pattern: The assault allegations never reached the Title IX coordinator and were instead investigated by administrators. That systemic failure repeatedly resulted in districts punishing sexual assault victims, who often happen to be girls of color, who are already disciplined at higher rates than white students.

Brooklyn-based lawyer Carrie Goldberg has represented seven teenagers who were punished after reporting that they had been sexually assaulted. Out of those seven, five were girls of color from low-income families. Goldberg noted that these minority students are less likely to have access to counseling and legal resources and must overcome biases that black girls are less deserving of protection than their white peers.

“I’ve had cases where administrators have not only decided that the sex was consensual, but they’ve actually blamed the victim for endangering the health and morals of themselves and other children at the school,” Goldberg said. “If schools don’t believe black girls who report assaults, then they are much more likely to punish rather than help them. That’s why these cases aren’t just about gender; they’re also about race.”

‘They made it seem like she was a sicko for taking the picture’

The night before Jane Doe spoke to Carol City High officials, she told friends that she had been sexually assaulted by three boys on different occasions in October and November of 2017. According to a copy of a report by the state attorney’s office, obtained by The 74, two of her friends said they urged Doe to report it, but she was worried that no one would believe her.

The next day, while a teacher asked why Doe was in tears, one of Doe’s friends simultaneously reported the incident to the principal. The principal tasked the assistant principals and a school police officer with collecting statements from the students involved.

Doe indicated in her written statement that at least some of the sexual activity was forced, and she wrote, “I couldn’t breathe. I [was] choking and crying.” The officer asked Doe to add a sentence at the end saying that everything was consensual, according to Doe’s lawsuit against Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

“They made me add to the statement something I didn’t say, something I didn’t approve of,” Doe told The 74. “But they had told me that if I were to write that down — that I was a willing participant — that all of this would be over.”

The state attorney’s office acknowledged that Doe made numerous inconsistent statements that made it difficult to prosecute the case in the criminal justice system.

“However, there is no reason to believe that she made false statements with any degree of malice or criminal intent. [Doe] is clearly a victim in this matter,” the state attorney’s office state in its report. “It appears that her inconsistencies perhaps are due to embarrassment over being involved in these incidents and made with the hope of appeasing her mother.”

Doe never returned to Carol City High School after her suspension. She didn’t want to be around the boys she had accused of sexual assault, and after several weeks of staying at home, she transferred to a different school. Working with the National Women’s Law Center, Doe sued Miami-Dade County Public Schools in January. A federal judge in April shot down the district’s request to dismiss the lawsuit.

In a court filing, the district argued that it made the decision to suspend Doe based on the information available at the time and that its disciplinary decisions shouldn’t be second-guessed in court.

The Trump administration took a nearly identical position in proposed Title IX regulations last November laying out how schools must deal with sexual misconduct. The U.S. Department of Education stated at the time that it would be “wrong for it to second-guess” a school’s disciplinary decisions during a federal investigation, because local administrators have “unique knowledge of the school culture and student body” and are the best ones to make these calls.

While those proposed regulations are not yet in place, the department has at least twice avoided sanctioning K-12 schools for doling out discipline to girls who report sexual misconduct, a review of civil rights investigations reveals.

Last year, the department declined to criticize Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia for handing out eight-day suspensions to a male and female student for an on-campus sexual encounter, which the girl said was not consensual. Federal investigators said in 2018 that they had “concerns” that the school failed to discipline the boy for recording and sharing a video of the incident without the girl’s knowledge, but the department gave Mastery Charter Schools credit for conducting a “prompt and equitable” investigation of the allegation.

Yet Rebecca Veidlinger, a former prosecutor trained in forensic interviewing, said that the failure to ask the right questions early on can prevent a victim from revealing that an incident was not consensual, especially among youth with little sex education.

“To me, that’s absolutely critical,” said Veidlinger, who now consults for schools on Title IX matters. “The first person who’s interacting with the student is going to color and impact how the student shares what happened. If you’re doing a crappy job at the front end, it’s really hard to take that out midway through.”

In another Title IX case investigated by the Education Department, a high school dance team in San Marcos, Texas, punished a girl for sending a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend — even though the school only learned of the picture when the girl complained that classmates had shared the image without her permission and taunted her for it. The department closed the case in 2017 after deciding that the school’s dance team had a “legitimate, non-retaliatory reason” for the discipline, and had similarly sanctioned another student for sending a nude photo of herself to a boyfriend.

Goldberg was stunned that the department sided with San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District instead of her client, the female student on the dance team. “They made it seem like she was a sicko for taking the picture and that she got what was coming to her,” Goldberg said.

The department declined to comment.

‘Do what is in place to do’

Title IX compliance is frequently an afterthought on many K-12 campuses. The schools that punished girls who reported sexual misconduct often excluded Title IX coordinators from any involvement in the situations, leaving the cases in the hands of administrators with no specialized training. But many school district Title IX coordinators are untrained as well, according to a 2018 paper by Elizabeth Meyer, a University of Colorado Boulder professor. Meyer discovered that some coordinators aren’t even told that Title IX is part of their job until they’ve been in the role for several months, and that they regularly turn to Google if they have questions.

One Title IX coordinator told Meyer’s research team, “I got a letter from the federal government saying, ‘Who’s your Title IX coordinator?’ And I went to my secretary and she said, ‘You are.’”

Meyer also found that K-12 Title IX coordinators rarely analyze if their school’s anti-harassment policies are working. One Title IX coordinator explained in the paper that they’ve learned not to “apply too much thinking” to their role, and instead, “Do what is in place to do. At least that’s how I’ve handled it, especially given my ignorance.”

The lack of care to Title IX isn’t limited to small towns with few staff. The New York City Department of Education — the nation’s largest district, with 1.1 million students in 1,800 schools — has had only one Title IX coordinator. The city government reached an agreement on a budget last month that will fund the addition of several more Title IX staffers, following a number of lawsuits detailing how officials had mishandled sexual assault cases.

“I wish Title IX coordinators had more support for what they do,” said Sarah Orman, a top lawyer for the Texas Association of School Boards.

When principals look into these cases, Orman explained, their first consideration is often whether students broke any school rules — like a prohibition against sexual activity on campus.

“They’re so focused on applying the student code of conduct, the other legal issues are not necessarily in their focus,” Orman said.

The Warren Consolidated School District in Michigan expelled a girl in 2015 for leaving campus grounds during school hours when she reported that an older male classmate had sexually assaulted her. An assistant principal said in a deposition that she didn’t refer the sexual assault report to the Title IX coordinator because she first decided that the girl was lying. The assistant principal also said that in her role, she had never investigated a sexual assault case before.

That same year in Gwinnett County, Georgia — where a school suspended a girl for sexual activity on school grounds because she couldn’t prove that it was nonconsensual — an associate principal conceded in a hearing, “I don’t know that I’m trained to qualify what is sexual assault.” (The district agrees that the associate principal made this statement, but it argued in a court filing that whether the administrator “was able to articulate a precise definition of the term ‘sexual assault’ was wholly insignificant to the outcome of the investigation and utterly irrelevant to her ability to assess whether the oral sex between Plaintiff and MP was consensual.”)

Without training on how to handle gender-based violence, administrators are more likely to succumb to “deep-seated fears and stigma around sexual activity among young people,” noted Sandra Park, a senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, who has handled Title IX cases with the nonprofit. “I think part of that is driving the punitive response.”

At Kingstree Middle Magnet School of the Arts, in rural Kingston, South Carolina, an eighth-grade girl identified as LC reported that three boys had sexually assaulted her in a school bathroom. Within hours of her report, before conducting any sort of Title IX investigation, middle school administrators suspended LC for sexual misconduct and for being in the boys’ restroom, according to a lawsuit against the school. Less than two months later, at the same middle school, another female student reported that she had been raped in the girls’ restroom by one of LC’s assailants, a separate lawsuit states. For the second girl, identified in court records as LG, administrators decided that day to expel her for having sex in the restroom. Administrators said that because they believed that both LC and LG had consented to the encounters, there was no need for them to immediately refer the students to the Title IX coordinator or police.

Matthew Douglas, a lawyer for LC and LG, said the Kingstree administrators who handled his client’s cases had an “old-school mentality” that if a girl is caught in a compromising position, she will lie to say she was raped.

“That sends a message that further creates an environment that’s ripe for student-on-student sexual assaults,” Douglas said. “Why would you go report it when you’re going to have an uphill battle?”

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.

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