“Too many institutions are looking to protect their institutional brand,” said John Foubert, Oklahoma State University Professor, “by saying ‘rape doesn’t happen here.’”
The rate of sexual assault in high schools and colleges across the country is more than alarming. Students are in school to learn, and when schools do not take the proper measures to respond and help assaulted students, the student’s performance in school plummets. Students often miss class, fail assignments, or even worse drop out of school. Where are the protections for students? What can be done?
The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) took matters into their own hands. Last January they asked the US Department of Education for documents to show whether the Department is enforcing laws to protect students from sexual assault. Civil rights laws such as Title IX, prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual assault and rape, in a “federally funded education program.” This means public kindergarten through high school (K-12) schools and public universities are required to protect their students because they receive federal funding. The Department of Education should be monitoring this and withholding federal funds from schools who do not comply.
According to the Association of American University Women, nearly half of all students, and more than half of all girl students, will experience sexual harassment in school. In addition, a recent survey found that one in five girls between the ages of 14-18 have been kissed or touched without their consent.
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NWLC filed their request last January, and received no response. After repeated attempts to get the information, NWLC filed a lawsuit on June 12th to compel the agency to honor it’s requirements to share those public records. The law entitled “Freedom of Information Act,” also known as FIOA (pronounced Foy-Ah) requires federal agencies to share documents when asked. There are rules around how quickly agencies are to respond, usually 30 or 60 days. The Department of Education did not respond for five months and gave no indication of ever responding. NWLC had to file a lawsuit to compel the agency to comply with the law.
We all have these rights to get information from agencies. Not everyone has the resources though to file a lawsuit. Especially the Department of Education, who is responsible for overseeing the education and protection of our country’s children. This department should be responsive and willing to cooperate with the public.
Why does NWLC want these documents? Because NWLC believes that the Trump administration, and specifically, the Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are not willing to commit to enforcing these protections against sexual harassment. Secretary DeVos is a big “voucher” school advocate. “Voucher” schools are private companies that provide K-12 education. Voucher Schools can pick and choose whom they teach, and can charge money for it. Public schools must offer education to everyone, wherever you live. Fourteen States and the District of Columbia now provide state funds to Voucher Schools. Now, Secretary DeVos wants to expand the use of these private Voucher Schools and give them federal money, even if they discriminate.
NWLC wants to take these documents and review them and share with the world their findings. Is the government looking at discrimination and sexual harassment in schools? Are they enforcing Title IX? Are they withholding federal funds from those schools with a bad track record? And lastly, what do they plan to do with the new Voucher Schools coming into the system?
After filing the lawsuit in federal court on June 12th, the next day the Department of Education began to release some documents to NWLC. The first is a list of all the school districts that have sexual harassment complaints filed against them. The Department indicated more records will be forthcoming.
The NWLC President-elect Fatima Goss Graves released the following statement:
“It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to get the Department of Education to comply with the law by releasing requested documents that will show us whether the government is enforcing legal protections for student survivors of sexual harassment and assault. We are still waiting for the release of additional critical documents that will tell students, families, and advocates whether they can trust the government to intervene on their behalf in cases of sexual harassment, including rape. We will closely track the release of these additional documents that the department must legally provide us and continue to monitor its actions in enforcing Title IX.”