The U.S. Department of Education (ED) on Feb. 28 issued a Dear Colleague letter to state school chiefs requesting immediate action to reduce gender-based violence in schools and to help ensure all students are safe. The letter from Secretary Arne Duncan says that while strategies to improve school climate and reduce bullying are critical, they may not be adequate to reduce or respond to teen dating violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and stalking. The letter urges leaders to take action to specifically address these forms of gender-based violence.
Unlike the April 2011 Dear Colleague letter focusing on compliance with Title IX that caused so much interest and discussion, the new letter serves as more of a notification, Saundra Schuster, an attorney and partner with the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, tells Campus Safetymagazine. She believes the new letter encourages K-12 schools to take a broader view that expands beyond discrimination to address sexual violence. Additionally, the letter is another step the ED has taken to reinforce that they are on the same page as the Department of Justice (DOJ) in promoting and supporting sexual violence reduction efforts.
“The ED and DOJ have not always worked hand-in-hand on addressing sexual violence until about two years ago,” she says. “In describing sexual violence, [the ED] uses the three key terms the DOJ has used from the beginning in their violence against women program: sexual assault, intimate partner violence and stalking.”
Schuster recommends schools not only understand federal laws regarding these issues, but also state laws.
“In my state, we had a school principal who learned about sexual behavior occurring between two third graders. The principal addressed it with the children and parents but didn’t take the state-mandated step to report it to law enforcement and to the department of children’s services,” she says. “That principal was terminated. My belief is the principal was unaware that there are obligations under state law.”
She also believes that K-12 schools, much more so than colleges and universities, are struggling with their responses to sexual assault, intimate partner violence and stalking.
“Before I hit a campus, I always review their policies, and half the time, my head spins around because they are convoluted,” she says. “Teachers don’t know who to report to and don’t know what to report. Students have no clue about reporting, resources or support.”
In order for K-12 campuses and universities to fully comply with the ED and DOJ’s policies regarding gender-based violence, Schuster recommends they develop understandable and unambiguous policies that provide clear pathways for reporting and describe what happens after an incident is reported. She also recommends targeted training for victims, bystanders, counselors, responders and teachers.
Here is the Dear Colleague letter: