Brylie was a happy seventh-grader who did well in school and ran cross-country. That all changed, she says, when she was held down and raped by a classmate at a mutual friend’s house.
The boy then harassed her relentlessly at school, she alleges in a federal civil rights complaint, making crude sexual comments and mocking her after finding out she had cut herself. He was in four of her six classes.
“It made going to school really scary. It made me really anxious and sad that something like that could happen,” she says in a phone interview with the Monitor.
Her parents noticed her withdraw and tried to help, but they didn’t find out about the rape until the fall of her 8th-grade year. Once she had counseling, they reported to the police and the school. Officials of Jefferson City Schools in Jefferson, Ga., the complaint says, failed to protect her from the ongoing harassment and to make accommodations for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Such experiences are all too common, civil rights advocates say, and can end up depriving students of their equal right to an education.
The #MeToo movement has drawn attention to workplace sexual harassment in recent months, and college activists have been pushing for years for their campuses to do better at preventing and responding to sexual assault, drawing in large part on their rights under Title IX. But little attention has been paid so far to how much sexual harassment and violence affects elementary, middle, and high-school students.
It’s time for people to connect the dots, say parents and advocates who launched the #MeTooK12 campaign Jan. 9 to raise awareness and point people toward potential solutions. They want schools to confront problematic behaviors early on and promote equality, respect, and healthy relationships.
“These entitlement behaviors [and] the normalization of sexual harassment starts in K-12, with the schools not really disciplining students and not really talking about it,” says Joel Levin, director of programs for Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS), a nonprofit he and his wife, Esther Warkov, founded in Portland, Ore., after troubling interactions with the Seattle schools when their daughter was sexually assaulted by another student.
“We need the involvement of parents and school staff to work together on this,” he says.
Determining the scope
In the Jefferson case, the boy’s sexually explicit and violent comments to Brylie and other students continued in middle school and her first year of high school, she says. Eventually she felt like she had to leave the highly touted district she had attended since she was 5 years old.
“He’s living the life he’s completely taken away from her….The school system allowed that to happen,” her mother Felicia says tearfully during a separate phone interview. Brylie and her mother asked to be identified only by their first names because they wanted to maintain some degree of privacy. Their lawyer provided a copy of their complaint to the Monitor.
Jefferson school officials did not respond to Monitor requests for comment. The American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association also declined to comment about sexual assault in K-12 schools.
It’s not easy to measure the scope of the problem. In a national survey of girls ages 14-18, 21 percent said they had been kissed or touched without their consent and 6 percent said they had been forced into sex, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) reported last year. The survey did not narrow down who the perpetrators were.
There were at least 17,000 official reports of sexual assault by K-12 students against their peers between 2011 and 2015, a 2017 investigation by the Associated Press (AP) found. Data was not available from all states, and many cases go unreported. About 5 percent of the reports involved 5- to 6-year-olds.
As for sexual harassment, 56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys in grades 7 to 12 said in a national survey that they had experienced it, the American Association of University Women reported in 2011.
“This problem is very prevalent in K-12 schools, it’s just something that a lot of people are either not aware of or are reluctant to admit,” says Sabrina Stevens, a senior manager at NWLC, which is partnering with SSAIS on the #MeTooK12 campaign.
Helping, without victim-blaming
Schools can do a lot to mitigate the impact on a student’s education, but youths who report sexual harassment and violence at school often encounter victim-blaming, Ms. Stevens adds. “That’s what this Me Too reckoning is about … People need to realign the way they think about this issue so they can respond in compassionate and effective ways.”
Brylie’s family thought the school would stop the harassment. But school officials said they couldn’t act unless the police brought charges, Felicia says.
After several weeks of a police investigation, the family found out it would not result in charges. The reason, as Felicia can best recall, is that they didn’t have physical evidence, and the boy's father or lawyer wouldn’t allow him to be interviewed.
The police department did not respond to the Monitor’s request for comment.
Like many parents, Brylie’s didn’t know anything about Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive any federal money. They say the school officials never brought it up.
Under Title IX, schools are supposed to promptly investigate and address reports of sexual harassment and assault and work to prevent a hostile environment – in addition to any police action that might be taken, says Neena Chaudhry, NWLC’s senior counsel and director of education.
Enforcing Title IX
Among K-12 schools, “Title IX is perhaps the least enforced of the education laws,” says Bill Howe, who oversaw Connecticut’s Title IX compliance until 2015 and is now an education consultant in Hartford, Conn.
Some of the systemic problems he has identified around the country:
- An attitude that since Title IX doesn’t come with extra federal funding, it’s a low priority to enforce it.
- A lack of training and a practice of having people who are Title IX coordinators “in name only.”
- Title IX coordinators who are also attorneys for school boards or hold other roles that create a conflict of interest, because they have incentive to protect the reputation of the district.
He hopes more schools will become proactive, instead of reacting to incidents or monetary motivations. He recalls a mayor asking for his help to improve practices in the school district when housing values were going down “because of the reputation for sexual assault at the high school.”
Most schools undoubtedly have a lot of demands to meet on tight budgets. The #MeTooK12 campaign acknowledges that and is promoting resources, including toolkits and a video made with students and experts, to help inform schools, parents, and the public.
People should raise the issue at meetings of the school board and the Parent-Teacher Association, they suggest, and ask about Title IX policies and training.
“Once we started doing training … the complaints [accusing schools of not following Title IX] dropped dramatically,” Mr. Howe says of Connecticut.
Eighteen states require training about peer sexual assaults for staff or students, the AP investigation found.
Communicating about rights
When Brylie started high school, her family still hadn’t heard of Title IX. They had gotten assurances that the two students would be kept apart, but on the first day, they say, he sat near her and stared her down at a school assembly, triggering a panic attack. More meetings resulted in more promises that were not enforced, they say.
She held on to hope a little longer, until the first day of her second semester, when she walked into class and saw him there despite having been told their schedules would not overlap.
“I went straight to the front office to report that to the counselor and the principal … and they were just like, ‘There’s nothing we can do. We’re sorry. We’ll move you,’ ” she says. “It was just so upsetting … the fact that it was always me moving and me having to leave and not him.”
After school that day, she told her mom, “It takes a piece of me every time I walk in there.” She wasn’t going back.
There are no other high schools in the district, so Brylie’s parents arranged work schedules to homeschool her temporarily, and to make sure she wasn’t alone, because she was struggling with suicidal thoughts.
They finally discovered Title IX around that time, and connected with SSAIS and later with lawyer Cari Simon, who specializes in school-violence law at the Denver, Colo., office of the Fierberg National Law Group. She helped file the family’s Title IX complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in May 2016.
As of Jan. 3, OCR was investigating 156 sexual violence cases at 134 K-12 schools, including the case in Jefferson, according to a list provided to the Monitor by the Education Department.
Often in such cases, districts will enter into resolution agreements to put better practices in place. At times, OCR also requires school districts to reimburse families for related expenses such as counseling and tuition. Brylie is now a junior at a private school and her family has asked for such remedies.
“I just want the school to be held accountable … so that they don’t do that to anybody else,” says Brylie, who is considering studying law one day and becoming an advocate for survivors. “I want … to help other people who are afraid to come out and say what happened to them,” she says. “Talking about it does help.”
*If you need confidential support or advice you can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online at www.rainn.org.