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Facing Lawsuits, NYC Retools Sexual Harassment Policies For Schools


Amid a series of highly publicized sexual assault allegations, the New York City Department of Education is changing the regulations around harassment and bullying. The proposed regulations expand the definition of what constitutes harassment, details how administrators should conduct investigations, and outlines how to support students who come forward.

“We’re really ramping up our footprint in making sure students and parents know this will be a safe and supportive environment for students and adults. And in the circumstances that a concern arises [to know] who they can go to to make that report,” Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said last week.

According to materials distributed to the public schools, the regulations are in direct response to a legal settlement from 2016. Additionally, multiple students and their families are applying pressure with their own lawsuits, alleging the education department failed to protect them against assault and rape.

The Panel for Educational Policy is scheduled to vote on the revamped anti-sexual assault and harassment regulations on Tuesday evening at a meeting in Staten Island.

The allegations are disturbing: the parents of a ninth grader named Mya Vizcarrondo Rios said she was bullied for months when two boys forced her to perform oral sex in an unsupervised auditorium in February of 2018. Later that day, she jumped off the roof of her building and died. She was still wearing her backpack.

Four other students—all girls of color with disabilities—allege the Department of Education violated federal Title IX and disability laws guaranteeing them a right to equal education. They include a sixth grader who said a classmate raped her near school while she was walking home; an eighth grader who said she was raped by a classmate in a school stairwell; and two high schoolers who said they were groped repeatedly at school.

The lawsuit involving the four girls, represented by Legal Services NYC, alleges serious deficiencies in the schools’ responses. Attorneys claim the school staff deflected, mocked, and punished students when they asked for help, and then failed to provide post-trauma support.

“I think at the top there’s been a failure to invest in these policies, in staffing, and resources to make sure that they’ve created a culture where people are aware of their obligations but also a culture where they’re looking out for students,” said Katrina Feldkamp, an equal justice works fellow, sponsored by The Arnold & Porter Foundation at Bronx Legal Services.

Statistics say harassment and assault among adolescents is widespread. According to the National Women’s Law Center, one in five high school girls report being kissed or touched without their consent. Research also shows students who have been harassed are more likely to have emotional problems and struggle in schools, and children with disabilities are three times more likely to be the victims of sexual abuse.

Many sources and students who spoke to WNYC/Gothamist, the problem is rampant in middle schools and high schools across the city.

“I’ve had my boundaries disrespected many times,” said Siara Valetina Alvarenga, a senior at the High School for Environmental Studies. She says a boy touched her inappropriately in a stairwell. “These are things that happen everyday.”

While universities have strengthened protocols related to sexual assault, experts say K-12 principals, counselors and teachers are far less prepared to address the same sort of issues in their schools. Last month, the federal government ordered Chicago Public Schools to overhaul how it handles sexual assault, calling the lapses there “inexcusable.”

“There’s a lack of appropriate training for individuals who are called to respond to sexual violence,” said Jennifer Becker, a senior attorney with the national nonprofit Legal Momentum.

Becker said the same has been true in New York City, where she served as the school system’s sole Title IX coordinator from 2015 to 2016. She said staffing was one problem, given that there was only one Title IX coordinator for more than one million students. Her office focused almost exclusively on incidents involving staff. This leads to another problem: DOE policy puts individual principals in charge of most disciplinary incidents that happen within their walls, including student-on-student sexual assault.

“One of the major hurdles to having a consistent response is the current policy requires individual schools to deal with complaints of student-on-student sexual harassment and violence,” Becker said. “With over 1,800 schools that’s over 1,800 administrators who are tasked with receiving complaints of sexual violence and being able to respond appropriately.”

She said calling on administrators to interview perpetrators, evaluate evidence, and draw conclusions “in a consistent and fair manner”—when they don’t have substantial training and on top of everything else they do—is “difficult if not impossible.”

“These are skilled educators and administrators not seasoned investigators,” she said. “And the content of these investigations is unique. In law enforcement we have special investigators who take on these cases because it requires a different expertise, a different understanding of the dynamics at play.”

Carranza said the department is addressing these challenges, by staffing up on Title IX compliance and dramatically increasing training.

Last spring, the City Council fought for and won additional funding for seven Title IX liaisons who will be based in boroughs to support principals or their staff as they investigate incidents. Those new liaisons are in the process of being hired.

For the first time, the DOE is also requiring in-person training for designated point people at each school. In the last year, its gender equity coordinator conducted day-long workshops on sexual harassment prevention and response for almost 2,000 staff members. More training specifically around investigations is coming.

But individual school principals will still be in charge of investigating all but the most extreme cases. The head of the principals’ union says that simply doesn’t work.

“The safety and well being of students is our number-one priority,” said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the New York City’s principals’ union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. But, he said, putting administrators in charge of sexual harassment and assault is untenable.

“With all the other things they need to do on a daily basis, in order to get something like this done, they would need more resources,” he said.

Survivor advocates, on the other hand, say the department is taking extremely important steps by clarifying investigations, training more staff members, and spelling out support for students. But they warn that you can’t investigate your way out of the problem.

Ashley Sawyer, policy director with Girls for Gender Equity, said her group wants less punishment and more prevention. They have been lobbying for the state to pass new requirements on sexual education.

“We want to see comprehensive health education with a focus on consent, healthy boundaries, power, privilege, coercion,” she said. “Without that, we’ll never see the cultural shift we want to see.”

Girls for Gender Equity is a local advocacy group that helped launch the national #MeToo movement. Sawyer said it’s as important to address harassment in the classroom as it is in the boardroom.

“Schools are the workplaces of youth,” she said. “The same way that we see adults making changes in the workplace … we have to see that same type of change happen in New York City Public Schools.”

Students say that’s what they’re fighting for, too.

“I just want everyone to know that we are not just the future, but we are the present,” said student Siara Valetina Alvarenga. She’s also a peer leader with the anti-dating abuse group Day One. “We need to get our voice across. Because when we are violated, when we are uncomfortable, it needs to be heard.”

Melinda Siriwardana contributed reporting.

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