Betsy DeVos’ New Enforcement Focus: Title IX Sexual Misconduct in K-12 Public Schools

March 2, 2020

In the past decade, the number of sexual harassment and violence complaints in American K-12 public schools have increased fifteen fold, according to the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”).

Faced with this troubling data, on February 26, 2020 the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced a new OCR initiative to enhance the enforcement of Title IX in K-12 public schools. See the Department of Education’s full press release here. This initiative will focus not just on sexual assault, but also sexual harassment (collectively “sexual misconduct”). It will address student-on-student, as well as adult-on-student, sexual misconduct.

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs or activities that accept federal funding. As a result, although the initiative targets public schools, the resulting Title IX standards and concepts will apply to all K-12 schools that accept federal funds.

Based on the announcement, which incorporated a recent OCR resolution agreement of sexual misconduct complaints against the Chicago Public Schools, the enforcement initiative will focus on the design and the implementation of schools’ centralized systems for sexual misconduct prevention, education, response, and data management.

While we can expect more information and technical assistance from the OCR in the months to come, the announcement makes clear that the enforcement initiative will include:

  • Intentional and focused OCR Title IX compliance reviews examining the systems and processes used to handle sexual misconduct complaints against students and adults.
  • A focus on raising public awareness within schools and surrounding communities about sexual misconduct and the schools’ related policies and systems.
  • Proposed improved data gathering by districts, including more detailed reporting and improved data collection of all sexual misconduct complaints against adults to minimize the ability to “pass the trash.”
  • OCR data quality reviews, ensuring that schools accurately report and record all complaints and resolutions in a centralized data management system.

In some ways, this initiative is reminiscent of the OCR’s increased scrutiny of higher education’s handling of sexual misconduct over the past decade. K-12 schools can benefit from the many lessons learned from higher education institutions, as well as those set forth in the Chicago Public Schools resolution agreement referenced above.

Now is the time to review the design and the implementation of your school’s systems for sexual misconduct prevention, education, response, and data management. We recommend working with experts in the field of sexual misconduct prevention and response.

The attorneys at Strassburger McKenna Gutnick & Gefsky have a depth of experience working in the education field, helping our clients navigate the constantly evolving regulations for all institutions including K-12 schools and universities.  Pamela Connelly will be continuing to post a deeper dive on Title IX and Title VII.   You can reach out to Ms. Connelly at pconnelly@smgglaw.com or (412) 281-5423 with any questions or to discuss.