Chicago Agrees to Reinvestigation of Sexual Abuse Complaints, Other Remedies After Federal Investigation Finds ‘Widespread and Systemic’ Title IX Violations
In Chicago, students who feel that their complaints of sexual assault were mishandled by the city’s third-largest school district will now have the chance to have their cases reviewed again, thanks to an extensive agreement between the district and the U.S. Department of Education.
On Thursday, the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education announced a resolution agreement that the Chicago Public Schools voluntarily agreed to after it was determined that the district’s procedures for investigating and addressing allegations of sexual misconduct violated Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education. This settlement allows for a rehearing of complaints filed since 2016.
Federal officials hailed this resolution as a historic step forward. Kenneth L. Marcus, the assistant secretary for civil rights, described it as a comprehensive and significant agreement that reflects the seriousness of the findings. The goal is to ensure that such mishandlings do not occur again.
Under the terms of the settlement, the district is required to implement various changes, including a review of actions taken by current and former employees who may have mishandled complaints, taking appropriate action in response. Additionally, more authority will be given to the Title IX coordinator, and other Title IX policies will be revised.
Carrie Ward, the executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, praised the decision to rehear recent cases, stating that it acknowledges the failures in the system, particularly for those who made complaints during that time period.
The settlement, spanning 40 pages, outlines numerous incidents of reported sexual abuse by both staff and students, as well as the district’s failures in responding appropriately. The Office for Civil Rights conducted an investigation into over 3,000 harassment and abuse complaints over four non-consecutive school years. While the overall number of sexual violence complaints has been rising, the quantity in Chicago is unusually high, according to Marcus.
The settlement highlights what Marcus refers to as a "widespread and systemic" dysfunction within a broken and disorganized system. Apart from the inadequate responses to student-on-student and adult-on-student complaints of sexual harassment and assault, the report also identifies failures in record-keeping and generally insufficient procedures, such as a lack of notification to students and parents about grievance procedures.
Significantly, from 1999 until December 2018, the district did not have a designated Title IX coordinator, which Marcus deems a basic requirement of federal civil rights law. Even after the appointment of officials to this position, they lacked the necessary authority to carry out their duties, according to the OCR.
Although the federal investigation was prompted by complaints in 2015 (regarding a student assaulted by a teacher) and 2016 (regarding a student assaulted by classmates), the issue gained widespread attention after a Chicago Tribune investigation in July 2018.
The announcement coincides with the Department of Education’s finalization of new rules governing Title IX regulations in both K-12 and higher education. These rules would generally result in schools intervening in fewer cases.
In response to the federal action, Janice Jackson, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, expressed in a public letter that the settlement builds upon the district’s ongoing efforts since the previous summer. These efforts include the establishment of the Office of Student Protections and Title IX, background checks for all staff, vendors, volunteers, and coaches, mandatory annual training for staff, and the launch of an awareness campaign and Student Bill of Rights.
Jackson stated that while significant progress has been made, the goal is to create a safe and supportive district culture, and she is committed to doing everything possible to ensure that the district is free from all forms of harassment, abuse, and discrimination. This agreement will enhance communication and transparency within the district.
According to Shiwali Patel, senior counsel for education at the National Women’s Law Center, many of the problems found in the Chicago schools are prevalent nationwide. Examples include inadequate record-keeping and insufficient training for teachers. Patel finds the lack of an informed and engaged Title IX coordinator particularly concerning, as in some cases, employees were not even aware of the coordinator’s name, indicating a potentially worse situation for students.
OCR’s investigation revealed several findings, one of which indicated a potential conflict of interest within the district from 2018 to 2019. During this time, the deputy general counsel, who also served as the interim Title IX coordinator, held the dual responsibilities of overseeing harassment investigations and providing legal advice on possible liabilities to the district.
DeVos’ proposed Title IX rules appear to be at odds with the Chicago settlement in certain aspects. Specifically, one provision would require schools to address cases of adult-on-student harassment only if a district Title IX coordinator is notified. However, Chicago did not have a Title IX coordinator for many years, and one of the complaints that prompted the investigation was initially reported to a guidance counselor by a student who was assaulted by a teacher.
The Education Department did not respond to inquiries regarding the potential impact of the Chicago findings on the new Title IX rules, nor did they provide any information on when the regulations might be finalized.
The resolution reached in Chicago follows shortly after the department concluded another high-profile sexual abuse case involving Michigan State University. The university was fined $4.5 million for mishandling abuse allegations made against university employees, including Larry Nassar, a former doctor at the institution who was convicted of abusing teenage patients, including members of the Olympic gymnastics team. This fine, a record-setting amount, was imposed for violating laws that require public notice of crimes committed on or near college campuses. The settlement also necessitates other changes to how MSU handles and investigates sexual harassment claims.
DeVos expressed her reaction to the Chicago findings in a tweet, describing them as "widespread, glaring & heartbreaking," and emphasizing that "too many innocent students suffered because adults didn’t do their jobs."
This case could serve as a wakeup call to the public regarding the issue of sexual assault in K-12 schools, following the recent increased awareness of the problem on college campuses. Marcus noted that what holds true for colleges and universities is equally applicable to elementary and secondary schools. When parents send their children to school, they should have confidence that their safety is ensured. OCR will ensure that this happens.
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