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Farrell: How to Respond to a Title IX Complaint — What Every District and Coordinator Should Know

An activist holds a #MeToo sign during a news conference on a Title IX lawsuit outside the Department of Education Jan. 25, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A version of this essay was originally posted on the Stop Sexual Assault in Schools blog.

When I joined Palo Alto Unified School District in 2017 as Title IX coordinator, the district had recently completed a resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) related to a wide-reaching Title IX investigation. As part of this agreement, the district agreed to hire its first full-time Title IX coordinator.

While most, if not all, colleges and universities were well aware of the requirements related to complying with Title IX, many school districts, lacking funding and expertise, had not undertaken a concerted effort to comply.

During my tenure, I have had the opportunity to work closely with dedicated and professional administrators whose focus has always been the best interest of the students. Unfortunately, many of them had not been trained in Title IX prior to my arrival and did not understand the intricacies related to its requirements for response, investigation and conclusion. While Title IX covers all forms of sex-based discrimination (e.g., access to educational programs, parity in athletics), the majority of my work has involved sexual harassment and sexual misconduct matters.

Over the course of my years with the district, I have concluded that assisting administrators with an immediate, reasoned response is critical to managing Title IX claims and achieving the goal of allowing students to pursue their education without the fear of discrimination or harassment. This response often occurs prior to the initiation of an investigation and definitely before reaching a conclusion about whether the district’s sexual harassment and/or nondiscrimination policies have been violated.

Here are my suggestions for Title IX coordinators and school-level administrators to assist in the process.

What is notice of a Title IX matter?

In general, a district is deemed to have notice of a Title IX matter when a “responsible employee” learns of a situation that may give rise to a Title IX complaint that the district must investigate. Under OCR guidance, these are employees with authority to redress or a duty to report incidents of sexual violence, or those whom students reasonably believe have this authority or duty. In many districts, these include administrators, counselors and teachers. In Palo Alto, all district employees regardless of title are considered responsible employees. Information regarding who is a responsible employee at any given district should be included in the district policies or posted on its website.

What is the obligation when a district learns of a Title IX matter?

As a guiding principle, districts need to remember their underlying obligation — upon notice of a Title IX matter, they must stop the harassment, remedy the effects of the harassment and prevent the harassment from occurring in the future.

What are the steps to an immediate, reasoned response?

Although it is difficult to predict exactly what might be necessary in any given circumstance, below is a list of considerations:

  • Identify a school point person: For all those involved in a Title IX matter — the reporting party, the responding party, friends of both (who may have brought the initial report) and parents — the process can be intimidating. Providing a designated, on-campus point person can help everyone feel safe and confident that the district is taking the matter seriously. Normally, we try to select an administrator with whom the individual has had a relationship prior to the incident. When there is not an administrator who fits, we will find a nonconfidential counselor or teacher, and our Title IX Office supports the point person with any necessary response.
  • External reporting requirements: Title IX matters often trigger other reporting requirements. Upon learning of the matter, consider whether a report is necessary to the state welfare agency. Most employees do this immediately due to mandatory reporter obligation, and most states require districts to train on this responsibility. A matter may also need to be reported to the local police. These reports are often state-mandated and cannot wait.

Physical and mental health support

Title IX matters often involve trauma and stress. Districts should ensure that they have resources to assist the parties and extend this support to other students who may be affected. Responsible employees should know how to access this mental health support. Providing this information on the school website can assist in getting it to those who need it.

  • Mental health assistance: Students should be given information about where to go for medical help after a sexual assault, how to maintain evidence (clothing, etc.) and where they can receive a sexual assault response team examination.
  • Mental health support: Both parties may need the assistance of mental health professionals to manage trauma and stress. School resources that provide support and confidential services (if appropriate) should be shared with the parties. Initial appointments should be scheduled if possible. Districts should also compile a list of local resources, in the event that the parties may not want to receive this care through the district, including free and fee-based service options. Both the reporting party and the responding party should be given access to these resources.

Academic and school programs

Upon notification of a Title IX matter, schools need to examine how the students involved can continue to pursue their education. In many instances, this may mean altering students’ schedules and/or participation in school-sponsored activities. Prior guidance from OCR allowed preferences to be given to the requests of the reporting party. More recent guidance in 2017 advised schools to weigh the impact of the changes on both parties before instituting a change.

For example, if two students are in the same class, one may request that the other be moved. In reaching a decision, the school must weigh a number of factors and allow both parties to pursue their education. In my district, we have moved one or both students, allowed students to finish the class through independent study, moved seats and had class monitors attend the class going forward. Unfortunately, there is generally not a simple solution, and many factors need to be analyzed before an adequate solution is found.

Districts should review their policies before making any changes, and in complicated cases they should seek the advice of an expert or counsel. In addition, OCR plans to issue regulations in the near future that could impact what schools are required to do going forward.

Safety measures

In order for students to pursue their education, they need to feel safe at school. Thus, schools should address what safety measures are necessary.

  • No-contact directives: In general, these keep students from communicating while the investigation is pending. At my district, we routinely issue these directives to ensure that we are preventing the possibility of continued harassment. Our directives prohibit the students from communicating with one another at school and off campus. The prohibition includes verbal outreach and digital/social media posts about the other party.
  • Safety plans: When a matter involves a serious allegation that includes potential violence and/or students interacting frequently during the course of a normal school day, a more detailed safety plan can be used to address class and non-class time. Areas that we usually cover in creating a safety plan include designating how a student will arrive and depart from school; setting up specific routes for students to follow when traveling to and from classes; designating where students eat lunch; identifying when students use campus resources (library, technology lab); deciding who will and will not attend any school activities (dances, teams, clubs) and any other protections related to time/space where students might interact or run into one another.

In the K-12 arena, the immediate response of the district is integral to allowing students to feel safe and continue their education. Without a concerted response, students are left feeling unsupported and may disengage from their education. Each Title IX claim is unique, and the responses need to be tailored to the circumstances.

Megan Farrell is Title IX coordinator and civil rights officer for the Palo Alto, California, Unified School District. She also consults with K-12 schools and districts, colleges and universities on Title IX. She can be reached at Megan@titleixconsult.com or mfarrell@pausd.org. See SSAIS’s new resource on the critical role of the Title IX coordinator, a guide to investigating district Title IX policies, a video modeling exemplary practices, suggestions for making change and Farrell’s new podcast addressing practical aspects of K-12 compliance. 

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