AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Campus sexual assault complaints are on the rise in places you may not expect - elementary, middle and high schools. Just like with colleges, it's the responsibility of K through 12 schools to investigate complaints and protect students who are victims of sexual assault or harassment. Charlie Stuip has been looking into how well schools are doing this as part of a Youth Radio special report.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: On the motion to adopt the amendment on the board policy on sexual harassment. Director London?
JODY LONDON: Yes.
CHARLIE STUIP, BYLINE: I'm here at a school board meeting in Oakland, Calif., where there's a major vote about whether to change the school district's sexual harassment and assault policy.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The motion is adopted.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Thank you.
ANDREA ZAMORA: OK, so they just passed a policy. They all agreed to it. I feel like my hard work that we've all collaborated together has paid off.
STUIP: That's 17-year-old Andrea Zamora. She helped develop the new sexual harassment and assault policy with a local nonprofit. Before, Oakland had just one person at the district coordinating sexual assault and harassment complaints from 37,000 students. Now there will be a point person at each school. Zamora notices her mom quietly wiping away tears.
ZAMORA: I guess my mom got too excited.
STUIP: And now she is, too.
ZAMORA: 'Cause she's making me cry.
STUIP: Zamora got interested in how schools handle sexual harassment and assault after realizing how messed up it was that boys at her elementary school did something called Slap Ass Friday.
ZAMORA: The girls were, like, hiding, putting their butts behind the wall, and then the guys were kind of like trying to, like, hit them and get at them. The whole time that the girls - they were trying to, like, cover themselves, I guess.
STUIP: That happened to me in my middle school. I just remember, like, a little twerp 6th grader with his, like, hand out going, pah (ph). And it is kind of funny, like...
STUIP: ...Looking at it, but then it's not.
Oakland's new policy is supposed to make the process of reporting and investigating student complaints super transparent, and to make sure adults know their responsibilities. Though training teachers is expensive. At big school districts, it can run a quarter-million dollars with no targeted funding from the federal government. Rori Abernethy, who taught math at Oakland High, wishes these changes came before she moved to a new school district last year.
RORI ABERNETHY: So I got burned out. I felt like I was doing more lawyering than teaching. And then that's a big reason why I left Oakland because I really want to teach.
STUIP: Abernethy says she regularly addressed student complaints of sexual harassment.
ABERNETHY: Just the day-to-day job of teaching is exhausting. But then you're stuck between a rock and a hard place because if another child comes and reports another incident, you can't just let it go. You know, you have to do something. That's somebody's life.
STUIP: It's also federal law, says William Koski, who runs the Youth and Education Law Project at Stanford University. He says it's all about Title IX, a law many associate with women in sports.
WILLIAM KOSKI: Title IX actually covers a surprisingly wide range of activities. It's an antidiscrimination statute. Sexual harassment, sexual violence, creating a hostile environment could be covered by Title IX.
STUIP: What counts as a hostile environment? Well, imagine sitting in second period history class next to a guy who assaulted you, running into that same guy alone in an empty hallway. That's where schools come in. They're responsible for creating a safe learning environment. Title IX has been around since the '70s, but in the last few years, there's been more focus on how the law is applied to sexual assault. Koski says it's even being used to hold schools accountable for assaults that happen off-campus.
KOSKI: So for instance, if there is sexual violence at a party or something like that, it's entirely possible that the victim of that kind of sexual violence will feel quite uncomfortable at school.
STUIP: If students or parents are unhappy with the way a school district handles their case, they can file a complaint with the federal government. The Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education has the power to investigate schools for their handling of sexual violence. Since 2014, those investigations are up more than 500 percent.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Developing tonight in Gwinnett County, officials are responding to an alleged sexual assault at a school.
STUIP: In one high-profile case at Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia, a teen girl says she was sexually assaulted by another student in an empty classroom. She doesn't want her name or even voice to be public, so I asked another Youth Radio reporter to read from her complaint. Here she describes being questioned by a security officer after reporting the alleged assault.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Reading) What were you wearing? Why didn't you tell your mom ASAP? Are you sure you didn't want to have oral sex with him? Did you scream?
STUIP: The Gwinnett County Public School district repeatedly declined our requests for an interview. But last year, a representative told local TV news reporters that the investigation was conducted fairly, thoroughly and promptly, and they believed the act was consensual. The district suspended both the accused and the accuser for having sex on campus. For her part, the girl filed a complaint against the district to the Office of Civil Rights, arguing that her suspension amounts to retaliation for coming forward about her assault. In an email to Youth Radio, the girl has a message for schools.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Reading) My message is simple - it is your job to keep students safe. When a student comes forward and reports an assault, school officials must step up, provide support and take the report seriously.
STUIP: The Office of Civil Rights is still investigating her case, as well as two others from Gwinnett County. Three federal investigations into sexual violence in one school district is considered a lot. However, the Trump administration is changing how they handle these complaints. The Department of Ed didn't respond to requests for an interview, but released a statement saying changes are meant to streamline investigations, which currently can take years. But critics argue the administration is weakening requirements designed to protect school children and guard against systemic abuse at a time when sexual violence complaints in schools are on the rise. For NPR News, I'm Charlie Stuip.
CORNISH: And this special report was produced by Youth Radio.
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