GRAND RAPIDS, MI – After watching Forest Hills Public Schools undergo a federal investigation and lawsuit for its handling of a student’s campus sex assault allegations, school districts in the region are being more proactive about training employees.
“What was and is a difficult situation for Forest Hills is a learning opportunity for other school districts,” said Coni Sullivan, assistant superintendent for Human Resources and Legal Services for the Kent Intermediate School District. “We want districts to be proactive in approaching any type of harassment, not just Title IX.”
Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in all education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. While most commonly known for promoting gender equality in sports participation, it protects against any type of sex-based harassment, such as sexual violence.
On Wednesday, Forest Hills Superintendent Dan Behm confirmed the district settled the federal lawsuit regarding the 2010 alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old at Forest Hills Central by a student athlete for $600,000.
Related: School pays former student $600K for sex assault, harassment claims
Under Title IX, schools districts are required to respond promptly and effectively to student-on-student sexual harassment and assault to mitigate the effects of the hostile learning environment.
This spring and summer, the Kent Intermediate School District and other ISDs, as well as individual school systems, are doing extensive Title IX compliance and investigation training. On Wednesday, Katie Broaddus, an attorney with Thrun Law Firm, trained all Byron Center schools’ administrators and directors.
In March, U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney ruled Forest Hills failed to train school workers on response to complaints of sexual assault and harassment. And the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights said the 10,000-student district failed to properly investigate claims by the girl in its report.
Related: Former Forest Hills student’s report of sex assault, harassment a challenge for families, district
Sullivan said the ISD held April and May training and one is scheduled for August that will continue to drill down on Title IX, all related laws and how to conduct thorough investigations. She said school leaders know now that OCR expects a parallel investigation to what law enforcement is engaged in if the case is criminal – and that it needs to be timely.
“When it comes to investigating alleged sexual harassment that also could be a crime, you can’t just punt to police,” said Lisa Swem, an attorney with Thrun Law Firm, who conducted Title IX training sessions for KISD.
“School officials are committed to complying with Title IX. “I think the OCR position is challenging, particularly when it involves an alleged crime. The fact of the matter is educators are not trained criminal investigators or forensic interviewers.”
Swem said Title IX cannot be looked at in a vacuum. She said there are many layers because of the different laws that can come into play, such as Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which generally prevents the disclosure of confidential information about other students.
School districts are sending more staff to be trained now, not just the designated Title IX coordinator or human resources staff,
“Once the news about Forest Hills came, I knew we had to train all our principals and directors,” said Byron Superintendent Dan Takens about Wednesday’s district training and sending staff to ISD sessions. “We all need to know what to look for and the appropriate steps to take.”
Northview Superintendent Mike Paskewicz said district administrators will undergo training in August. He said Forest Hills thought they were following appropriate procedures but everyone is aware now that OCR is expecting something more rigorous.
“Districts have to be very specific about their sexual harassment policies and be prepared to investigate,” he said.
Forest Hills said that a Kent County sheriff’s detective told them not to conduct their own investigation – a claim authorities later denied.
Swem is encouraging school leaders to be proactive and meet with their local law enforcement to better understand one another’s roles and responsibilities and to educate them on their federal responsibilities under Title IX.
The Ottawa and Muskegon ISDs will host a one-day training on June 24 to ensure that “reports and complaints are adequately, reliably and impartially investigated.”
Monica Scott is the Grand Rapids K-12 education writer. Email her email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @MScottGR or Facebook