Idaho schools scramble to catch up with sexual harassment requirements

This story begins a four-story series on Idaho’s failure to comply with the federal Title IX law, and why it matters and how children are affected. Our other stories detail a call for more training on sexual misconduct, how districts are helping each other improve, and one student’s experience, which has led to a federal investigation. 

Idaho K-12 schools are scrambling to comply with federal regulations for handling sexual harassment and assault instituted by the federal government more than 18 months ago. 

The regulations fall under Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools. Title IX, instituted 50 years ago this spring, has long applied to the way schools should respond to allegations of sexual harassment and assault as a form of discrimination. But K-12 schools have been slow to catch on. 

Historic inattention to the regulations, coupled with a mountain of new requirements released during the pandemic, means some Idaho public schools are still not up to speed with federal rules to address sexual misconduct, more than a year after those rules came into effect. 

A review by Idaho Education News found that a third of Idaho’s districts are still not in compliance with some of the more basic requirements to post documents online. 

“It’s still not well understood,” Ryan Cantrell, director of Idaho’s Rural Education Association, said of the newest Title IX regulations. “They’re not quite sure what to do with it. They’re not quite sure what it means for them.” 

Title IX is constantly evolving as presidents tweak their expectations for how schools must handle sexual harassment and assault and other forms of discrimination. 

The most recent rules, instituted by Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in the fall of 2020, created a host of new regulations for K-12 schools, demanding their attention to an issue that has been more closely scrutinized at the college and university level. The DeVos rules would have been a huge lift for K-12 administrators even in normal times – and they went into effect while educators were struggling with the onset of COVID-19. 

The rules could shift again soon. The Biden administration is expected to reveal proposed changes to Title IX in April

The State Department of Education and Idaho education groups have offered myriad resources for schools to meet their obligations under Title IX. Title IX consultants say compliance is improving by the day. 

“What I find is that (administrators) are overwhelmed,” said Lindy Aldrich, a national consultant on Title IX. “I have compassion for them. At the same time, I don’t want to see another generation of girls go through not feeling supported.” 

The stakes are high. There’s little data around the frequency of sexual misconduct in Idaho’s schools, but surveys show that Idaho youth experience higher rates of sexual violence than the national average, a trauma that can have lifelong consequences in school and beyond. 

Schools that don’t provide the proper support under Title IX risk federal investigation and costly civil rights lawsuits. Five Idaho districts are under investigation by the federal government or embroiled in federal lawsuits that have stretched on for years.

Title IX is about more than women’s sports 

Title IX is a short law, but its coverage is far-reaching. The rule prohibits sex-based discrimination in any education program that receives federal funding, in every arena from athletics to admissions. It protects pregnant students and LGBTQ youth from discrimination, and includes specific rules for how schools have to deal with sexual harassment and assault.

Longtime Idaho superintendent Wiley Dobbs was a freshman at Twin Falls high school when Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law in 1972. One of its first applications was to make sure girls and boys had equal access to athletic opportunities. 

Implementation was slow going in Idaho, Dobbs said. By the time he graduated in 1976, girls still only had four sports teams, compared to seven for the boys. 

The Twin Falls High School’s 1976 girls’ basketball team went 13-1 during their regular season. Historical records suggest this was the first year girls could play in a state championship game, nearly 60 years after the boys’ first championship in 1917. Photo courtesy of Wiley Dobbs. 

As women’s access to sports and education programs expanded over the following decades, so did the jurisdiction of Title IX. By 1980, federal courts had started to recognize sexual harassment as a form of sex-based discrimination prohibited by the law. By 1997, the U.S. Department of Education had instructed K-12 schools and colleges to adopt grievance procedures and appoint a Title IX coordinator to address sexual harassment. 

Those Title IX rules garnered national attention in higher education circa 2011, when national media coverage and the Obama administration called attention to the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses. Obama issued guidance for how schools – both at the K-12 and college levels – were required to deal with sexual harassment and violence. Still, the majority of the scrutiny was on colleges and universities. 

Dobbs, who returned to Twin Falls to teach, and became an administrator in the district in the 1990s, doesn’t think K-12 leaders were well aware of the Title IX requirements. It wasn’t until after Dobbs retired from the district in 2017 that he learned from a college president about the far-reaching Title IX regulations for sexual harassment and assault. 

“I was involved in a lot of schooling throughout my years. I got a doctorate. I don’t ever remember any discussion that went past equality in sports when we talked about Title IX,” Dobbs said. “Quite frankly, I was unaware.”  

Title IX regulations were again vaulted into the minds of K-12 administrators in 2020, when the Trump administration unveiled a significant rewrite of the rules. 

The new regulations demanded policy updates, new staff members appointed to Title IX response teams, and new training – all in the middle of a pandemic. 

“The timing couldn’t be more unfortunate,” Brian Armes, director of Idaho’s School Safety and Security Program said at the time. 

Data shows schools behind on understanding, complying with new requirements

Sexual misconduct prohibited by Title IX can come in many forms: A school employee offering a benefit in return for sexual favors, sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, or any unwelcome conduct based on sex that is so severe it interrupts someone’s access to education. The law protects both students and staff from sexual harassment and violence in a school program. 

School districts are required to assign a Title IX coordinator to oversee the handling of sexual harassment complaints. They also have to publish policies that meet the federal government’s rules for responding to sexual misconduct, and broadcast how folks can reach the Title IX coordinator to report an issue. 

In K-12 schools, every single employee – including custodians and bus drivers – is required to report potential Title IX issues to the school’s coordinator. 

Reviews by EdNews and a state agency found that schools are not consistently compliant with these standards. 

In the 2020-21 school year, Idaho’s School Safety & Security office reviewed Title IX policies at 164 schools across the state, as part of their regular safety audits. Analysts found: 

  • Only 17% of the schools visited had adopted and published a grievance procedure that was in line with federal rules enacted at the start of that school year. 
  • Also, only 17% of school staff understood their responsibilities as mandatory reporters under Title IX, and knew who they needed to report issues to. 

“This is a landmine. This is a hazard,” analyst Elliot Cox told Idaho administrators at a conference last fall. “Whenever any one of your K-12 district employees becomes aware of sexual harassment, you are now on the hook.” 

Administrators are generally more aware of their Title IX responsibilities than general staff, Cox said in an interview this year. He also expects that compliance has improved since the department first collected this data. 

The new Title IX rules also require districts to publish specific information on their websites, including: 

  • The Title IX coordinator’s name and contact information in a “prominent place.” 
  • Links to Title IX training that school staff has completed. 
  • A non-discrimination policy, saying the district doesn’t discriminate on the basis of sex. 

EdNews went through the websites of Idaho’s 180 public school districts and charter schools in January and February, looking for those required materials. We found: 

  • About 35% of Idaho districts were missing at least one of these required postings as of late February. Districts were most frequently missing a link to Title IX training materials. 
  • On 20% of district websites, EdNews couldn’t find any of these three requirements. 
  • Compliance gradually improved. When EdNews first reviewed school districts in early January, 50% were missing a required posting. Twenty-six districts posted or fixed links to missing materials after we asked. 

Cantrell, with the Rural Education Association, said that these rules weren’t always the first priority for administrators when they went into effect in August 2020. Title IX updates took a backseat to COVID-19. 

“The god’s honest truth was that not many school districts were paying attention to (Title IX). They were dealing with the crisis in front of them,” Cantrell said. “I think a lot of schools kind of pushed that aside and said, ‘We’ve got bigger fish to fry.’” 

Education organizations are trying to help Idaho districts comply with the new rules. Cantrell and Dobbs are working to form “coalitions” of small districts that assist one another with Title IX investigations. The Idaho School Boards Association pushed out a model Title IX policy for its members. And the State Department of Education contracted with former Boise State University Title IX coordinator Annie Hightower to provide training for K-12 administrators. 

“I think that schools are very aware of (Title IX) now, and really doing their best to make sure they’re in compliance, coming into compliance, and improving their responses day by day,” Hightower said. 

Compliance enforced by the courts and federal government

The SDE does not enforce compliance with Title IX, said Eric Studebaker, the SDE’s director of student safety and engagement. 

If a student or staff member thinks a district has violated their Title IX rights, they have two places to turn: the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, which investigates Title IX complaints, or the courts. 

The Office for Civil Rights has four active Title IX investigations in Idaho K-12 districts right now: 

  • Boise School District: Under investigation for a complaint that the district did not follow Title IX procedures in responding to the sex-based harassment of an elementary student. 
  • Lake Pend Oreille School District: Under investigation for a complaint that Sandpoint High School doesn’t provide equal athletic opportunities for female students. 
  • Jerome School District: Under investigation after a transgender student complained she was not allowed to use the restrooms that align with her gender identity. 
  • Idaho Falls: Still under investigation after a 2017 complaint that the district improperly handled a report of sexual harassment. 

 Meanwhile, the Fruitland School District is embroiled in two Title IX lawsuits in federal court. Lawsuits allege that the district was “deliberately indifferent to a culture of sexual hostility by its staff members.”

The first lawsuit targets the district’s handling of misconduct allegations against former high school principal Mike Fitch, who was investigated by state police over allegations of inappropriate conduct with students. At least four former students told police Fitch had sent them sexually suggestive messages or touched them in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. Fitch was not charged for conduct related to students but was prosecuted on allegations he sexually abused a coworker. A jury determined Fitch was not guilty of those charges in 2019. 

The second suit accuses the Fruitland district of failing to prevent and address the sexual abuse of a minor by former assistant high school track coach Kelly Rhinehart. Rhinehart was indicted on rape charges in 2019, but prosecutors dismissed the charges amid procedural challenges. Payette county prosecutor Mike Duke says he’s still pursuing charges in the case. Rhinehart denies the allegations. 

Scant data on the frequency of sexual harassment in Idaho schools 

It’s difficult to say exactly how frequently sexual harassment or assault happens in Idaho schools, because the state does not collect specific data on these instances. (At least 32 other states do collect this data, according to reporting by the Associated Press in 2017). 

However, Idaho youth do report alarmingly high rates of sexual assault. 

Nearly 15% of Idaho high schoolers said on a 2019 survey that they’d experienced some kind of sexual violence in the past year. Around the country, only 11% of high schoolers reported the same.  That Youth Risk Behavioral Health Survey also found that more Idaho high schoolers experience rape and dating violence than the national average. 

Studies and surveys have found that sexual violence can take a serious toll on academic outcomes. Idaho’s 2019 youth survey found that rape was “significantly” associated with student grades, for example. 

Before DeVos revised Title IX rules, if school staff knew about sexual harassment that impacted a student’s access to education, administrators had to investigate and take steps to resolve the situation. Under the new rules, schools have to offer support to an alleged victim, but don’t have to investigate unless the victim or Title IX coordinator files a formal complaint.

There’s no rubric for how many Title IX complaints schools should be receiving, Hightower said. In her experience as a Title IX coordinator, Hightower would expect districts to open at least some investigations each year if students know their Title IX rights and school staff are trained on their obligations to report Title IX issues. 

EdNews asked several of the state’s largest districts how many Title XI investigations they’ve conducted in the past five years. Some districts report very few, or none at all:

  • West Ada School District (40,000 students): 0 investigations since 2017.
  • Boise School District (25,000 students): 13 investigations since 2017. 
  • Bonneville School District (13,000 students): At least 7 investigations since 2020.
  • Nampa School District (13,000 students): 1 investigation since 2017. 
  • Twin Falls School District (9,000 students): 4 investigations since 2015. 

Dave Roberts, human resources director for the West Ada district, said the district has investigated issues of sexual harassment – but it hasn’t always done so through the Title IX process. 

“We just weren’t really aware of these requirements and literally it’s been the last two years that we’ve really gotten up to speed on them,” Roberts said.

Roberts said he isn’t aware of any Title IX training for students included in West Ada’s curriculum. Students can find Title IX information and file harassment complaints online, Roberts said, but he thinks the district could also do more with signage promoting that students have a safe place to report. 

“We’ve got to make sure that our kids are safe in school, that’s the No. 1 priority for sure,”  he said. 

Sami Edge

Sami Edge

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