Dept. of Ed OCR Announces Resolution of 3 Discipline, Sexual Harassment and Disability Harassment Investigations

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools in North Carolina, Alpine SD in Utah, and Allegheny Valley SD were all being investigated by OCR for a variety of violations.
Published: October 4, 2023

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has been very active resolving cases involving discriminatory discipline, sexual harassment, and disability harassment. Here’s a rundown of some of the results of the agency’s recent investigations.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools

On September 30, OCR announced it resolved its compliance review of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools (WS/FCS or district) in North Carolina that examined whether the school district discriminates against African American students by disciplining them more frequently and more harshly than similarly situated White students.

In addition to persistent and significant racial disparities in district disciplinary referral rates and suspension rates generally that OCR confirmed as recently as the 2022-23 school year, OCR’s investigation found evidence suggesting that African American students were subjected to harsher discipline than White students with similar discipline histories and conduct. For example, OCR’s analysis of district discipline records showed that:

  • Black students were more likely than White students to be suspended for their first offense of the school year overall.
  • Black students were suspended at higher rates than White students for first-time offenses for certain offense levels and certain specific offenses. And,
  • Black students were suspended for lengthier periods than White students, on average, for first offenses of fighting.

During the 2022-23 school year, the district reported that African American students received 57.2% of discipline resulting in in-school or out-of-school suspension and White students received 14.2% of such discipline as of March 2023; in that school year, 29% of district students were African American and 34% were White.

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OCR was also concerned that the discipline code in effect prior to 2022 did not clearly define some of the most common offenses, which may have contributed to the different treatment of students based on race suggested in district records. While the district recently revised its discipline code to include definitions for most offenses that should provide better guidance to staff, the revised 2022 code leaves OCR concerned about the clarity of the guidance to staff and administrators about when to make referrals and how to determine appropriate consequences, particularly given the broad range of potential consequences for many offenses.

To resolve these concerns before OCR completed investigation of the district, WS/FCS committed to take steps to ensure that its disciplinary practices do not discriminate against students on the basis of race in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, building on the district’s previous efforts to promote equity in student discipline. WS/FCS agreed to:

  • Review its current discipline code to determine if further revisions are necessary.
  • Continue to train administrators and staff on the discipline code.
  • Collect complete and accurate data on all disciplinary referrals.
  • Analyze its current discipline data for evidence of unlawful discrimination or failure to comply with the discipline code.
  • Put in place corrective actions to address any concerns it identifies through its data analysis.
  • Coordinate with local law enforcement agencies on School Resource Officer data collection, training, and monitoring.
  • Conduct an assessment, with consideration of revision, of alternative school programs for students who commit discipline violations to determine program effectiveness as well as assess whether referrals to these programs are consistent with the district discipline code.
  • Provide information on its discipline policies for students and families. And,
  • Submit to OCR annual reports regarding the effectiveness of WS/FCS’s efforts for OCR review and assessment.

Read the resolution agreement here.

Alpine School District

On September 21, OCR announced that the Alpine School District in Utah has entered into a resolution agreement to ensure the district’s compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 when responding to notice of sexual harassment of its students by other students and employees.

OCR determined that the district discriminated against students based on sex by failing to respond to reports of sexual assault by employees and students or to coordinate its responses to such reports through its Title IX coordinators, among other Title IX violations.

In particular, OCR found that the district failed to investigate or redress employee-to-student and student-to-student sexual assault allegations after they were reported to law enforcement, leaving affected students vulnerable to the discrimination that Title IX prohibits but that law enforcement does not address. Likewise the district did not complete or take required investigative steps in other reported employee-to-student cases and most reported student-to-student sexual assault cases.

Examples of employee-to-student sexual assault allegations for which the district did not fulfill its Title IX obligations include:

  • In 2018, a teacher performed a “sexual act” on a student in the teacher’s classroom immediately after school. After the student told a third party, who reported the incident to law enforcement, law enforcement questioned and arrested the teacher, who later pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. The district allowed this teacher to resign without conducting a Title IX investigation to determine whether this student or other students needed remedies under Title IX, and if so to provide them.
  • In 2019, a former student reported to a district counselor that a teacher had groomed her, inappropriately touched her exposed lower back, kissed her multiple times, and done the same to two other students. After the district interviewed multiple former and current students, the principal described how the teacher: (a) singled out female students and found out if they came from a single parent or distressed home; (b) crossed emotional and physical lines with the female students; (c) promised them specific rewards; and (d) found ways to be alone with them and to kiss them. The principal wrote, “As we investigated we heard the same story again and again. … [I]t was eerie how similar the stories were, even though most ended early with the students transferring or quitting.” After the teacher denied the allegations and blamed the girls for misunderstanding his teaching methods, the teacher retired at the end of the school year. OCR found no evidence that the district provided current students interim measures or investigated to determine if the teacher’s conduct created a hostile environment for current or former students that required redress.
  • In 2017, after a parent complained to the district about an employee who hugged and kissed on the cheek several female elementary school students as they exited the school bus on multiple occasions, the district confirmed through video footage that the employee had hugged and kissed students. Yet, the district produced no evidence that it conducted any interviews, contacted any parents, imposed its recommended disciplinary action, or offered any remedies to the students whom the employee hugged and kissed.

Apart from these employee-to-student incidents, the district involved its Title IX coordinator in only one of 88 reported student-to-student sexual assaults in the 2017-18 through 2019-20 school years. OCR did not find evidence that the district investigated whether the 88 reported incidents had created a hostile environment for the harassed students, as required by Title IX, thus potentially limiting or denying their access to education.

OCR also identified compliance concerns about the district’s responses to off-campus sexual harassment that created a hostile environment for students in school, its training for employees responsible for ensuring its compliance with Title IX, and its recordkeeping system to track incidents of sexual harassment.

As an example of the district’s flawed recordkeeping, OCR notes that the district had reported only one sexual assault for OCR’s 2017-18 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), whereas the district reported 20 student-to-student sexual assaults during that same year in this compliance review.

The district agreed to resolve the Title IX violations and concerns that OCR identified in a resolution agreement to ensure nondiscrimination on the basis of sex in its schools.

The resolution agreement includes:

  • Ensuring that the district coordinates all of its efforts to comply with Title IX through its Title IX coordinator(s) moving forward.
  • Notifying students, parents, and employees of its designated Title IX coordinator(s).
  • Revising Title IX policies and procedures to comply with the Title IX regulations.
  • Disseminating a notice of nondiscrimination that complies with the Title IX regulations.
  • Training employees and students regarding the district’s Title IX procedures, how to identify what constitutes sexual harassment, and how to report such harassment.
  • Reviewing case files for reported incidents of employee-to-student and student-to-student sexual harassment from school years 2017-18 through 2019-20 to determine if further action is needed to provide an equitable resolution of each incident.
  • Improving its record-keeping system to ensure that records about sexual harassment are created and maintained and to report complete and accurate date to the CRDC.
  • Administering school climate surveys to students, parents, and district employees. And,
  • Reporting to OCR on its responses to reports and complaints of sexual harassment during OCR’s monitoring of the resolution agreement.

Read the resolution agreement here.

Allegheny Valley School District

On September 21, OCR announced it had resolved a disability harassment investigation of the Allegheny Valley School District in Pennsylvania.

OCR determined that the district subjected a student with a disability to harassment so pervasive that it constituted a hostile environment and that the district failed to take necessary steps to protect the student, end the harassment, and assess whether the harassment impeded the student’s ability to access the district’s educational program, in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Title II), and their implementing regulations.

Over a period of six months, classmates repeatedly directed disability slurs at the student and both physically attacked the student and threatened to attack him in a manner directly related to his disability, all of which the student’s parent, and school staff, reported to a district principal. One of the attacks was captured on school security camera video and still the principal did not treat it as disability-based harassment.

OCR’s investigation revealed that the district did not investigate all incidents reported, and where the district investigated, its investigations were so limited that they, for example, disregarded an eyewitness report and did not seek information from relevant witnesses. Further, OCR’s investigation revealed that the district treated each report of harassment as an isolated incident, instead of an accumulation of evidence that the student was experiencing persistent disability-related harassment.

Although OCR’s investigation revealed that the student’s parent reported that the harassing behavior was impacting the student’s ability to access the district’s educational program, and requested modifications to the student’s individualized education plan (IEP) to provide the student with more support, the district failed to convene a formal IEP meeting, pursuant to the requirements of Section 504, for more than six months after the student’s parent first reported the harassment.

And even when the district convened the student’s IEP team six months later, there is no evidence that the IEP team considered whether the harassment resulted in a denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) for the student, and whether adjustments to the student’s IEP were necessary.

Allegheny Valley School District has committed to taking the following steps to ensure nondiscrimination based on disability in all of its education programs and activities, including:

  • The distribution of a memorandum to all district staff affirming the district’s obligations pursuant to Section 504 and Title II.
  • Training all school staff.
  • Offering individual remedies to the student, such as counseling, academic or other therapeutic services to remedy the effects of the harassment.
  • Convening the student’s IEP team, as appropriate, to determine whether he experienced a FAPE impact due to the harassment.
  • A review of all bullying incidents for a three-year period at the school to determine any needed additional remedies. And,
  • A climate assessment to evaluate needed additional supports to ensure a nondiscriminatory school environment for students.

Read the resolution agreement here.

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