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Fighting for Equitable Schools in California

July 3, 2017 | by

Our new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has shown an alarming uncertainty about, and ambivalence towards, the federal laws that protect students in publicly funded schools. When she was confirmed as secretary, we knew it meant a potential rollback of the strong enforcement of these laws under the previous administration. 

One clear example is the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter. While Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination based on sex at school that receive federal funds, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued this letter to help schools understand how to comply with the law and its implementing regulations. Specifically, it provides guidance on schools’ responsibility to provide a prompt and effective response to allegations of sexual harassment and sexual violence. If the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter guidance were to be revoked by the new administration, we would lose an important tool for schools to ensure their campuses are safe for all students.  

Testifying in Sacramento

That is why Equal Rights Advocates is a proud co-sponsor of California bill SB 169. This legislation would ensure that, were the Office for Civil Rights to rescind this Dear Colleague letter, similar guidance would remain in place for state-funded schools. Senior Staff Attorney Jessica Stender appeared before the California Assembly Judiciary Committee this week to explain the importance of SB 169: 

While sexual harassment has long been recognized as a form of prohibited sex discrimination under Title IX, sexual harassment and violence in schools and colleges is rampant. At least 1 in 5 young women will be subjected to an attempted or completed rape during her college education. While it is often less well-known, sexual harassment and violence also plague K-12 schools. 

Especially at the K-12 level, Title IX Coordinators are generally full-time educators or administrators whose main duties are entirely different from Title IX compliance. They are often provided little to no training and therefore have no practical understanding of their duties under Title IX. While California has laws analogous to Title IX, California law does not provide guidance on how local educational agencies can meet their obligation to address and respond to sex discrimination, including sexual harassment and violence. This is why Title IX’s implementing regulations and regulatory interpretation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has been so critical.

In her confirmation hearings, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testified that it was “premature” to say whether she would uphold the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter guidance. It is therefore imperative that we take action in California to ensure that these protections remain in place to ensure our students are safe and have the opportunity to learn in an environment that is free of discrimination.

Student activists from the group Berkeley High School Stop Harassing also appeared before the committee to share some of their personal experiences at school. Here is a brief excerpt: 

In December, one of my friends uncovered a group chat created by popular boys in my grade that included misogyny, rape threats and vandalism threats that they considered “jokes”. These texts included a message about raping me. After bringing the texts to the attention of the school administration, my friend experienced extreme retaliation from people supporting the boys in the group chat. This included vandalism to her home and hateful Instagram posts directed at her. Not only did she feel unsafe going to school, and eventually stop going to her classes, but my friend felt scared to be in her own house.

Throughout the reporting process, my friend needed an adequate response from the school, a safety plan so that she could continue her Junior year classes, and most importantly she needed her rights under Title IX to be upheld. Aside from gathering information, the district did no direct safety planning and did not ask us what we needed for 70 days. Over that period of time, many girls had uncomfortable encounters with the boys and two of my friends dropped their classes and entered independent study because of the boys. Personally, during those 70 days, I had nightmares in which the boys were touching me and bad dreams about seeing them in the hallways between classes. 

Stories like mine show that we have schools in California that have difficulty following Title IX now and need assistance in learning how to fully support survivors. What our schools need is help to develop more robust policies that are trauma informed. The last thing our schools need is to lose some of the protections covered by Title IX.

No matter who sits at the head of the Department of Education, ERA will continue fighting to ensure students’ rights are upheld and that girls feel safe and supported at their schools. 

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