This story is the fourth in 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. In the previous stories, learn about one student’s experience, which has led to a federal investigation, and how training would give young people more control over recognizing, and responding to, sexual violence in their own lives.
When the U.S. Department of Education enacted new Title IX regulations for how schools must deal with issues of sexual harassment in the fall of 2020, some likened them to a train, hurtling down the track toward districts that were already juggling the challenge of educating kids during a global pandemic.
The new rules created a detailed rubric for how K-12 schools must respond to and investigate reports of sexual harassment and assault in the school setting – requiring multi-person response teams, website postings, policy rewrites and training for administrators to get up to speed.
Ryan Cantrell, director of Idaho’s Rural Education Association, says it was a huge lift for small, rural schools – some of which barely have the staff to fill required Title IX teams.
“I’m just not convinced that at a federal level, they hit the pause button and asked themselves: How is this going to translate from large universities to small, rural schools?” Cantrell said.
The IREA is piloting an experiment to help. Cantrell and others have organized Title IX consortiums in the Magic Valley and lower panhandle area, gathering teams of rural administrators who will help one another navigate the complicated rules.
The idea is that school districts within a consortium would select a few staff members to go through ongoing training on Title IX compliance and investigations. Then, if a school in the consortium had a Title IX complaint arise, districts could share those staff members with one another to make sure that the complaint was investigated according to federal regulations.
Under the new Title IX rules, districts have to have at least three people trained to fill different roles in responding to an issue of sexual misconduct, though best practice calls for four or more. Teams include a district Title IX coordinator, investigators, decision-makers, an informal resolution officer, and someone to handle potential appeals.
“You run out of manpower very quickly,” said Luke Schroeder, superintendent of the 1,800 student Kimberly School District.
Say Schroeder had a Title IX situation come up at his high school. The principal and vice-principal would likely be ineligible to serve on the Title IX response team, he said, because they would have prior knowledge of the issue and wouldn’t be considered unbiased in their response. If the high school principal called Schroeder for advice on how to handle the situation, he’d also be ineligible to participate in that investigation, he said.
Schroeder would need to tap all three of the other principals in his district to participate in investigating and responding to the issue — and if the decision was appealed, he’d be out of trained staff to fill that role.
That’s where the consortium would come in. Small districts could call on trained administrators from other districts to help with Title IX response.
“It definitely would help out our size of district,” said Dena Allred, superintendent of the 300-student Castleford district south of Buhl. Her district has only two administrators and three staff trained in Title IX, with a fourth going through training right now.
One of the challenges, Cantrell said, was working out an agreement for districts to share staff members without sharing liability – meaning if a school got sued for its handling of a Title IX situation, the volunteer from another district wouldn’t also get sued. Consortiums are currently revising a memorandum of understanding clarifying some of those details, says Wiley Dobbs, with the Idaho Superintendent’s Network Mentoring Project, who is helping with the effort.
“Working together, we can learn from each other,” Dobbs said. “It’s important that we get these procedures correct, so we can address these very serious situations as they occur.”
The effort is new – meetings started in earnest in February – but if the pilots are successful, IREA could expand the model in Idaho, Cantrell said. It might also prove useful for other states.
When Cantrell set out to help ease the school’s Title IX challenges last summer, he looked around the West for a consortium model to adopt. Wyoming, Nevada, Montana – nobody had a similar model for addressing Title IX investigations, he said.
“We’ll be inventing it as we go,” Cantrell said.