Students, advocates call for more student training on sexual misconduct and Title IX

This story is the third 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 other stories, find out how districts are helping each other improve, and learn about one student’s experience, which has led to a federal investigation. 

Editor’s note: This story recounts details of sexual abuse that some readers may find disturbing. 

Miriam Torres was a sophomore when she says her counselor at Sugar-Salem High School started grooming her for a sexual relationship.  

Grooming, according to sexual violence prevention group RAINN, is manipulation used to gain access to a child and coerce them to agree to sexual abuse. 

As a high school student, Torres thought she was falling into a consensual relationship with a married, adult man. The counselor, who denies grooming Torres as a minor, started having sex with her during her senior year, after she turned 18.  

It wasn’t until years later that Torres, now 26, started to see the relationship as sexual abuse by a therapist and a school employee. 

If sexual misconduct had been talked about more extensively at school, or even in her church or community, Torres thinks she would have been better equipped to recognize the abuse she says violated her rights under Title IX, a federal law protecting students from sexual violence and harassment at school. 

“Since being assaulted, I have read so much about grooming, and teens grooming each other and adults grooming teens,” Torres said, “And none of that was ever shared with me.” 

Torres, student advocates and Title IX experts say that improving student awareness of sexual misconduct and their rights at school would give young people more control over recognizing, and responding to, sexual violence in their own lives.

It’s difficult to gauge the frequency of sexual misconduct in Idaho schools.

Idaho is one of 18 states that doesn’t collect specific data about sexual assaults at schools, the Associated Press reported in 2017. The State Department of Education collects broad data around school violence, and instances of bullying and harassment — but those reports don’t specify instances of sexual harassment or assault. 

Student surveys suggest that Idaho youth encounter sexual violence more frequently than teens across the country. 

In 2019, nearly 15% of Idaho high school students reported on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey that they had experienced sexual violence in the past year. The national average was only 11%. Idaho high schoolers also reported more frequent experiences with rape and sexual dating violence than students across the country. 

If those students don’t get the kind of support they need, it’s not unusual for them to withdraw from school, or see their academics suffer, said Kelly Miller, director of the Idaho Coalition against Sexual & Domestic Violence. 

“That has just devastating long-term consequences,” she said. 

Title IX requires schools to address sexual violence and harassment in the school setting, including offering supports to students and investigating if a student files a formal complaint. 

But the law and its requirements aren’t well-known among students.

“I don’t think many people who experience sexual violence are aware of Title IX and their rights at schools,” said Annie Hightower, a Title IX expert who is contracting with the SDE to train K-12 schools on the law. 

No student training required 

Title IX requires all K-12 staff to report any issues of sexual harassment, sexual violence, dating violence and stalking to district Title IX coordinators, who must follow a strict regimen for responding to those issues. 

But the regulations don’t require schools to train students about sexual misconduct prohibited by Title IX, or what kinds of supports they can access at school if they’ve had an issue. 

There are community organizations across Idaho that teach young people about relationship health, and where to turn if they’ve encountered sexual violence. Eric Studebaker, student safety and engagement coordinator for the SDE, says the state has also done some of this work in its efforts to improve youth mental health. 

But Studebaker isn’t aware of any Idaho statutes or standards that specifically require schools to teach students about sexual harassment or violence, either. 

Idaho’s school safety and security program regularly asks schools about what kinds of training they give to students and staff. EdNews reviewed these questions on 127 school safety reviews the program conducted between fall 2020 and 2021. We found:

  • About 80% had regular staff training for gender respect and sexual harassment, but only 55% of schools regularly trained students on that topic. 
  • About 55% of the middle and high schools had regular training for students or staff on dating violence, an issue that staff are required to report under Title IX. 

Advocates say training would strengthen student autonomy

Lindy Aldrich, a national Title IX consultant, says students should be trained on their school’s requirements under Title IX. Students often think that their only paths forward after sexual violence are to report an issue to police, or to get help from a psychologist.

“There’s an entire web of civil rights, both federal and state rights, that are afforded to these populations as well, that no one ever tells them about,” Aldrich said. 

Under Title IX, if a student has experienced sexual harassment at school that is impacting their education, they are entitled to supports which might include counseling, tutoring, or adjusting class schedules. Students can also file a formal complaint asking their school to investigate and address the issue.

Telling students about these rights gives them a chance to ask for “what justice means to them,” Aldrich said. 

“A lot of times we like to come up with what’s appropriate justice, especially for minors,” Aldrich said. “In my experience, survivors have to define that for themselves.” 

Alex Bude, a senior in the Boise School District, thinks more student training on Title IX procedures would make schools feel safer. Bude works as a youth REP for the Boise area Women’s and Children’s Alliance, helping to educate his peers on healthy relationships.

Bude has friends who have experienced sexual violence, he said. So has he. And when it happened, they didn’t know where to turn. 

“It’s really difficult to come to school and learn, and do what you’re meant to do there, if you’ve had experiences at that school or adjacent to that school… that make you feel unsafe,” Bude said. 

Schools have the potential to be a place where students feel comfortable telling a trusted adult about their issues, Bude said, but that relationship requires students to be well-informed.

If students don’t understand how a school can help them, or if they don’t know what will happen with the information they disclose, they won’t feel safe coming forward, he said. 

“It’s the school’s responsibility to create a safe environment for learning,” Bude said, “to not just make available, but actually hand you the resources that make it feel like a more safe place.” 

“I don’t feel like I should support a system that is obviously not working” 

Torres filed a lawsuit against the Sugar-Salem school district in 2017, alleging the district violated Title IX by failing to investigate or stop her sexual abuse.

The parties reached a settlement in the case last year. The district did not admit to any wrongdoing, and the counselor continues to “adamantly deny” that he groomed Torres. In court documents, he said that their relationship started after Torres propositioned him. 

Torres is married now, with two young daughters and social media accounts where she offers support to survivors of sexual abuse.

There are days, she says, where it seems like childhood trauma will continue to affect her for the rest of her life. She’s in therapy weekly working through the long-term impacts of abuse. She manages post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and panic attacks. And  Torres’ experience has fundamentally shaken her trust in the local school system. 

When it came time for Torres to enroll her eldest daughter in kindergarten last fall, she went to an interview with her prospective principal armed with reading materials. 

She carried a book about sexual grooming, and a 75-page report on sexual misconduct in K-12 schools, which she’d printed and gathered in a binder. 

Torres wanted to know how, exactly, the school was going to protect her child. 

Torres left the meeting unsatisfied. She’s homeschooling the girl this year. 

“She may not have the same experience as me, but I don’t feel like I should support a system that’s obviously not working,” Torres said. 

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