Clarification: This article has been updated to say that the UW is under investigation for alleged violations of Title IX.
Sexual assault and sexual harassment are unmistakably prevalent in today’s schools and universities. Far too many students are taken advantage of and then ignored or silenced by those around them. Unfortunately, the too-common experience is often compounded by bewildering and unhelpful responses by the school, only exacerbating students’ suffering. For one Seattle family, it wasn’t an issue they could ignore.
Esther Warkov is the executive director and co-founder of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS), a recently formed nonprofit dedicated to educating students, families, and schools about sexual assault prevention. For her, the issue is a personal one, as her daughter was raped by a classmate on a Garfield High School field trip in 2012. The Seattle Public Schools’ response, which failed to properly investigate the crime and perpetuated a hostile and discriminatory environment for her daughter, led Warkov to found the organization.
“School districts are woefully unprepared,” Warkov said. “We never heard anything until we escalated the issue to the state level. School districts don’t want lawsuits. They want the problem to go away.”
Sexual assault and sexual harassment are ongoing problems in both middle and high school, as well as higher education. The University of Washington was placed under investigation in June for allegedly breaking Title IX, a federal statute that prevents discrimination and unfair treatment based on sex. The UW released a statement about the specific case being investigated, in which it allegedly “fail[ed] to provide the student with a prompt and equitable grievance process after the student reported an incident of sexual violence.”
While Title IX was passed primarily as a way to ensure equal treatment and funding for female athletic programs, it also prohibits any kind of activity that harms a student’s education based on sex. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) investigates schools based on Title IX complaints, focusing in recent years on cases involving mishandling of sexual harassment and assault. The UW is one of more than 100 colleges that are under investigation by the OCR for these cases.
What plagues and worsens this issue often comes down to a lack of understanding; schools failing to realize their responsibilities, students not being educated about their rights, and people falsely equating school and police investigations.
Amanda Paye, the UW’s Title IX coordinator, is heading the team that’s working to fix those issues. Her work involves creating resources and building student awareness about their availability. Right now, her main focus is simply building awareness for the tools her team has already created.
“We have a good infrastructure,” Paye said. “We can always improve, but we need to get people to actually use it. If anyone is struggling, we want them to feel safe in reaching out to administration. Every student should have Health & Wellness’ number in their speed dial.”
The Title IX office is a part of the UW’s Health & Wellness department, which also includes programs like Green Dot. Green Dot uses bystander training and presentations that encourage looking out for friends who are drunk, referring friends to resources and helping them leave abusive relationships, and challenging jokes that minimize the dangers of violence. It’s just one of the resources that Paye is working to make more public to the student body. Health & Wellness’ services are free and also include education on relationship violence, stalking, and suicide intervention.
The UW appears to be making improvements after the most recent investigation, and the avenues to gain help for students are much more open. But colleges are generally better at handling these cases anyway, Warkov pointed out. Middle and high schools tend to be less competent at handling those cases, with her own grievous personal example taking place right in the heart of Seattle.
In recent years, Seattle Public Schools has come under fire for its alleged mishandling of numerous situations of assault and harassment, prompting Warkov to take action against schools that would rather have seen issues swept under the rug.
The application of and adherence to federal laws by schools is patchwork, with many failing to achieve the basic standards Title IX sets out. Jeff Caffee, a civil rights and personal injury attorney who handles sexual assault cases for SSAIS, says the problems are widespread.
“There’s a lack of understanding that it’s not just athletics,” Caffee said. “Schools are obligated to ensure under Title IX a fair and equal environment. It’s surprising, but most schools don’t understand the responsibilities of Title IX.”
He pointed to the example of school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit discovered that most principals did not know who their Title IX coordinator was. Some had never even heard of Title IX, and only a handful could give a clear answer as to who was in charge.
“They didn’t know who their coordinators were, which is something you just need to know,” Caffee said. “It’s the canary in the birdcage. They don’t seem to understand, and it generally takes a lawsuit for a school to begin making progress.”
Caffee works primarily with families, counseling both parents and children on how to navigate schools’ responses. He says that often, the nightmare doesn’t end with the assault itself.
“Victim blaming is huge,” Caffee said. “Schools ask things like ‘Why were you there, what were you wearing?’ There’s a re-victimization that happens, where the school ends up treating you like a second-class citizen.”
School investigations function differently from police investigations, a distinction that schools and the public sometimes miss. The common complaint that schools should simply leave the investigation to the police ignores the vital role schools play in maintaining a safe environment on and off campus.
A school’s investigation, under the rules of the Association for Student Conduct Administration, is not supposed to focus on finding students guilty of a crime; instead, the purpose is to determine if the suspect’s conduct threatened others’ health or safety. Schools, for example, don’t need to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt, like courts do. Instead, they only need to find evidence that it was more likely than not that unwanted conduct occurred. This means that providing students with an environment in which they feel safe should be simple.
“Since the schools aren’t imprisoning anyone, there’s not as high a standard of evidence,” Caffee said. “The criminal side seeks to find the perpetrator guilty beyond doubt. That bar is higher because the consequences of being found guilty are higher.”
Joel Levin, director of programs and co-founder of SSAIS, noted the difference in responsibilities between schools and police.
“The police don’t care about keeping victims and perpetrators apart on campus, or keeping them separated if they end up taking the same classes,” Levin said. “That’s not their job. That’s the school’s job, and the schools are the only ones who can do it.”
The UW’s available resources, including the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Information Service (SARIS), can be beneficial to students. But Warkov wants to see resources independent of the college system as well, including information about a student’s civil rights and legal aid for students trapped in the web of faulty school response.
“The bystander effect is huge,” Warkov said. “We need to get boys and girls together to have an honest discussion about sexual assault, and older role models to explain how important it is not to be a [passive] bystander.”
The SSAIS website, stopsexualassaultinschools.org, will include those resources when it is launched in the near future. For now, Warkov hopes students will take an active role in preventing sexual assault as well.
“Many young women and gay students think it’s normal to be harassed,” Levin added. “We want to get them the message that they don’t have to put up with that.”
Until the site launches, the organization can be followed on Facebook as “Stop Sexual Assault in High School.” The OCR’s 53-page document, “Questions and Answers for Title IX and Sexual Violence,” is available online with key information about students’ legal and civil rights. The UW’s Health & Wellness office can be reached at (206) 543-6085 for consultation and intervention for students in need.
Reach writer Alex Bruell at email@example.com. Twitter: @BruellAlex