Office of School Safety: K-12 schools must revamp Title IX compliance by August

As Idaho’s K-12 institutions continue to juggle coronavirus challenges and plan for how to reopen schools in the fall, they’ve got another major change to plan for: updating sexual harassment policies to meet new federal guidelines.

The U.S. Department of Education released new rules this spring, formalizing the way K-12 schools must respond to and investigate reports of sexual harassment according to a federal statute called Title IX.

The new rules have the force of law. And they go into effect August 14, 2020.

“I refer to it as the train coming down the tracks,” said Brian Armes, director of Idaho’s Office of School Safety and Security. “Certainly, the timing couldn’t be more unfortunate. Be that as it may, that is an inescapable fact.”

Elliot Cox, a school analyst for the Office of School Safety and Security discussed Title IX changes with the office’s advisory board during a meeting Tuesday.

Cox, a trained Title IX investigator with experience working on sexual assault and harassment cases at the collegiate level, joined the Office of School Safety and Security in January. He’s created a network for higher education officials to discuss how they handle campus crime reports and is working with K-12 schools on Title IX compliance and trainings.

Title IX compliance has been a hot topic in higher education over the past decade as students and the press focused more heavily on sexual assault on college campuses. Colleges have re-evaluated and increased efforts to comply with Title IX, Cox said. He thinks it’s time for similar growth at K-12 schools.

“When I worked in higher eduction, responding to sexual harassment in a Title IX compliant manner was a high-priority, high-visibility issue and substantial resources were devoted to it,” Cox told board members. “…I assumed I would find the same would be true for K-12 schools in Idaho — I was wrong.”

School districts do encounter, and address, title IX related issues, Cox and Armes said. When school officials encounter issues of sexual harassment, said Armes, they may focus on these issues as a matter for law enforcement, or a matter for internal discipline. Those schools also need to make sure they’re following the federal response guidelines laid out by Title IX, Cox said.

“It’s not that people are sitting on their hands,” Armes said. “The reality is these things are dealt with, but they may not be dealt with in a good compliance fashion.”

The stakes are high for getting that right.

If districts don’t comply, Cox said, they stand to lose the funding they receive from the federal government. And earlier this year, the Department of Education announced it will be conducting compliance reviews of how K-12 schools and districts handle cases of sexual assault.

To comply with the new rules most educational institutions will need “considerable” capacity building, Cox said, including updating policies, ramping up training and documentation and clearly defining which of their staff members are responsible for addressing different parts of investigating and responding to complaints.

All this before mid-August.

“Educational institutions will have to fit in revamping their Title IX efforts while simultaneously figuring out how to reopen in the midst of a global pandemic,” Cox said, even as resources and funds are short because of budget strains.

The Office of School Safety and Security has issued guidance documents to districts about the changes to title IX, and plans to help school districts and charter schools with policy development and trainings. Eric Studebaker, student engagement and safety coordinator for the State Department of Education, said the department will also facilitate Title IX trainings at the Idaho Association of School Administrators conference in August.

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