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NYC Schools Reaches $700K Court Settlement With Student Sex Assault Survivors as Biden Administration Rewrites Title IX Rules

By Mark Keierleber | August 25, 2021

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The New York City Department of Education will make sweeping changes to the way it investigates sexual assault complaints after reaching a major court settlement with four female students who allege officials failed to protect them from sex-based violence, including rape.

Along with paying $700,000 in damages, the DOE agreed to changes that were designed to make it easier for students to file complaints and render the investigation process more transparent for families. The four plaintiffs, all of them students of color with disabilities, filed suit against the country’s largest school system in 2019.

“By coming forward more than two years ago, four young survivors have profoundly changed a school system for hundreds of thousands of current and future New York City students and families,” Joanne Smith, president and CEO of Girls for Gender Equity, said in a press release.

The New York City district is among multiple urban education systems to face charges that they mishandled or ignored students’ complaints of sexual assault — a practice groups representing victims argue has gone on for years. The settlement, announced Tuesday by the students’ attorneys at Legal Services NYC, landed as the Biden administration undertakes a major rewrite of Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in public schools, and backtracks on Trump-era rules that bolstered the due-process rights of students accused of sexual misconduct.

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Amy Leipziger, a senior staff attorney at Legal Services NYC, said the settlement provisions go far beyond those required by federal law. She compared the Trump-era regulations to the “Wild West,” adding that federal officials “could not have made it any less transparent if they tried,” leaving both advocates and educators to “interpret what it even meant.”

But at the local level, that federal ambiguity created “a lot of room for some creative advocacy,” she said. Specifically, she said federal rules are the floor, but don’t prohibit local officials from reaching higher.

“As local advocates and local officials, we can create broader protections and move it up to the ceiling,” she said. “I think that’s our obligation, and that’s something we feel really proud of.”

Among the changes, the city education department will create a process allowing parents to escalate complaints when they believe school officials failed to adequately address abuse allegations, provide support to student victims and update school transfer policies to make clear that students can ask to attend classes elsewhere following instances of harassment or assault. Officials also agreed to create a guide that informs educators about how trauma can affect learning and how special education teams should assess the impact of trauma among children with disabilities.

The lawsuit alleged that the city education department violated Title IX when officials repeatedly ignored assault and misconduct complaints by the students who were between the ages of 12 and 18 at the time of the alleged incidents. Two of the students were allegedly raped by classmates and two others said they were subjected to repeated verbal abuses, groped and sexually assaulted by their peers.

In one incident, a 14-year-old girl with autism reported being raped in a school stairwell by a classmate who, she had earlier told school officials, had abused her off and on for years. In another, a sixth-grade girl with an intellectual disability reported being raped by a classmate in a shed near campus while walking home from school. After reporting a sexual assault, one teacher allegedly told a victim “Oh, he just likes you,” and in another incident, a school dean told a student victim that her perpetrator was just “a touch-feely kind of person.”

Education Department spokeswoman Katie O’Hanlon said the changes will “provide greater clarity to students, parents and staff” regarding the department’s obligations to prevent sexual misconduct and will improve its “effectiveness in preventing and addressing this conduct.”

“Every student deserves to feel safe, welcomed and affirmed in their school and there is zero tolerance for sexual and gender-based harassment of any kind at the DOE,” O’Hanlon said in a statement. “We have made it easier to report harassment and provided more robust trainings for staff so that the strongest safeguards are in place for all students, especially for our students with disabilities.”

For years, the New York City school system has faced allegations that it mishandles student sexual abuse and misconduct cases. O’Hanlon said the department has hired a permanent citywide Title IX coordinator and seven borough-based coordinators and trained nearly 8,000 school staff members last year on dating violence, student-on-student sexual harassment and gender inclusivity.

The additional changes created under the latest court settlement are a step in the right direction, one plaintiff’s mother said. But the damage is already done.

“Due to that traumatic event, my child suffers every day,” the mother of “Jane Doe,” the student who reported being raped in the school stairwell, told WNYC/Gothamist. Her daughter remains traumatized by the incident to this day, she said. “She can’t focus as she did before. She lost a lot of interest in a lot of things, she’s depressed, she has nightmares.”

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Throughout the Trump administration, federal education officials forced dozens of school districts to revise their strategies to combat sexual assault after uncovering deficiencies. In 2019, Chicago Public Schools reached a sweeping agreement with federal investigators after officials found efforts to combat sexual misconduct in the nation’s third-largest school district ran counter to federal law. At the same time, the Trump administration released revised Title IX rules that bolstered the rights of students accused of sexual misconduct, and although the debate generally centers on how incidents are handled on college campuses, it brought profound changes to K-12 schools. Among them, the regulations narrowed the definition of sexual harassment and absolved educators from investigating most off-campus incidents.

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President Joe Biden has vowed to scrap the Trump-era Title IX regulations, and the U.S. Department of Education has announced plans to release proposed changes by May 2022. For Leipziger, that timeline is far too long, especially as children return to schools for in-person learning during the pandemic. It’s up to local advocates, she said, to move forward knowing that federal rules don’t preclude school districts from adopting more expansive protections.

“I think our settlement has done that in a lot of ways,” she said. “Every city and every school district and every state is going to have to take it upon themselves to say, ‘We recognize that.’”

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