By Sarah Peachey
What if your child attended a school where policies for sexual harassment and assault left them unprotected and without the basic rights other U.S. students have?
Public schools in the United States are required to follow the federally enacted Education Amendments of 1972, which includes a portion called Title IX. Recently, some issues have come to light in the Department of Defense Education Activity schools and suggest that Title IX does not apply to students of those schools.
In December 2013, Susan Roeder’s daughter was allegedly sexually harassed in an eleventh grade English class at Vilseck High School, a DoDEA high school in Germany, on a day when a substitute teacher was present. Roeder said that a male student urinated into a bottle during the class, asking if Roeder’s daughter “saw it that time.”
This was not the offending student’s first incident of public exposure, as Roeder reports her daughter was present when he had previously exposed himself in the school hallway between classes. The incidents were witnessed by other students and confirmed to school administrators.
While the incident was handled (Roeder says the school acted promptly), Roeder raised questions about the investigation process as it did not provide her daughter with the rights she would have in a public school under Title IX. Eighteen months after her daughter’s experience, Roeder learned from DoDEA’s General Counsel that the school principal classified the incident as student misconduct, not sexual harassment. You can read Roeder’s first-hand account of the process via SpouseBUZZ here.
What is Title IX?
Title IX is a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal civil rights law that “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal funding.” Most people are familiar with Title IX as it relates to equal access for female athletes, but the law also provides a variety of other protections from discrimination on the basis of sex, including “discrimination against pregnant and parenting students and access to STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] programs,” according to Know Your IX. After review by the United States Supreme Court in 1999, the law was interpreted to also apply to protection from sexual harassment, rape, and sexual assault in cases that create a hostile or abusive educational environment.
DoDEA schools and Title IX
The Education Amendments of 1972 apply to federally funded schools, but DoDEA schools are classified as federally conducted, which means that they are also run by a federal government agency. (Only two K-12 education programs are considered federally conducted: The Department of Defense’s DoDEA schools and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affair’s Schools.) Because of this distinction, Title IX did not apply to DoDEA.
In his Executive Order 13160, President Bill Clinton addressed the issue and attempted to broaden Title IX protections in all schools, whether federally conducted or federally funded. It was meant to provide equal opportunity and stated, that the federal government should “hold itself to at least the same principles of nondiscrimination in educational opportunities as it applies to the educational programs and activities of state and local governments or private entities receiving federal financial assistance.”
According to Roeder, all impacted federal agencies were provided the opportunity to voice concerns about Executive Order 13160, and DoD responded that they would support the initiative– even in DoD schools.
But Roeder says DoDEA has a policy of having the principal “investigate and respond” in cases of sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape. If that is the case, does DoDEA meet the “at least the same principles” standard?
“I have no idea why [DoDEA] thought [their plan] was sufficient or why no one challenged the policy decision at either the DoJ or the DoD back in 2000. What I do know is that DoDEA’s response to me when I challenged the policy was that ‘investigate and respond effectuated’ the requirement of Title IX. Clearly, they expected me to accept that explanation and move on,” Roeder said. “The question I asked from the outset is, how does DoDEA meet the ‘at least the same principles’ standard if they do not have comparable policies and procedures in place to protect the rights of student victims? So far, no one has answered that question.”
DoDEA is failing students by not fully adhering to Title IX
Here are a few ways that DoDEA school policy may not adhere to Title IX and why that poses potential problems:
- DoDEA Disciplinary Rules and Procedures, last updated in March 2012, does not mention sexual assault or sexual harassment. Some student handbooks list sexual harassment under “severe problems” (without defining what it is), but DoDEA principals can choose to classify these actions as “misconduct” when disciplining. This can allow some student protections to fall through the cracks. (This is what happened to Roeder’s daughter and was confirmed by DoDEA spokesman Frank O’Gara.)
- The DoDEA policy specifically defines sexual harassment in the workplace and describes procedures to help DoDEA employees who experience sexual harassment. There is also a policy that outlines teacher-to-student sexual harassment, but explicitly states that it “does not apply to peer-to-peer conduct exclusively involving students.” If it is important enough to outline a policy for workplace harassment and teacher-to-student harassment, it should be important enough to develop a policy for students alone.
- DoDEA students are expected to “respect the rights and human dignity of other students and all school employees, which includes refraining from discrimination or harassment (including sexual harassment),” but DoDEA never describes in student handbooks what sexual harassment is and frequently omits mention of sexual assault.
- DoDEA schools may not be accurately reporting sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape to their communities or the DoD. DoDEA policy allows schools to classify sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape as simple “misconduct.” With a failure to define sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape, students may not understand when it’s happening to them and may under-report incidents. A “misconduct” classification can also prevent the Justice Department from receiving an accurate accounting of the complaints dealing with Title IX concerns because general student misconduct does not have to be reported under Executive Order 13160.
- Principals are put in charge of handling reports of sex discrimination without the expertise and guidance of a Title IX Coordinator under DoDEA’s “investigate and respond” policy. This does not meet the requirement of Title IX or the expectations of Executive Order 13160 and fails to provide unbiased support for the victim or the accused and their parents.
- Principals in charge of handling reports of sex discrimination may not understand how to provide the proper support to victims, how to adjudicate the incident, what rights are offered to the victim and the accused, or how to determine an appropriate response. Under Title IX, victims are informed of their rights and have access to support by a Title IX coordinator, who is educated in Title IX. At the conclusion of an investigation under Title IX in public schools, both parties are provided a final written decision. This did not happen for Roeder. She was never provided the opportunity to call witnesses or give evidence at a disciplinary hearing– another right guaranteed for a victim in a public school. While DoDEA outlines a policy to deal with disciplinary issues, it may not be a unified policy in all schools and it may not meet Title IX standards or the executive order’s “at least the same principles” standard.
- DoDEA destroys disciplinary records after each year, which prevents an ongoing record of behavior. There is no way for the school to track behavior from year to year that may cumulatively warrant an expulsion or to monitor students prone to certain offensive behaviors. Title IX requires schools to take action against repeat offenders to keep sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape from happening.
- DoDEA procedures may hinder the appeals process. While DoDEA has an appeals process factored into its policy, appeals stay within the DoDEA system. Families can always speak to military commanders or an inspector general, but ultimately those individuals may lack authority to impact or reverse DoDEA’s decisions. Families in an overseas location have even fewer options or are forced to consult someone in the United States who is unknown, faceless, and out of touch with the community.
- Title IX requires sex discrimination reports to be documented each year. DoDEA has not followed this requirement. Part of that reason could be the misconduct classification for cases of sexual harassment or sexual assault.
DoDEA is not following the rules
Roeder discovered in a Freedom of Information Act request that DoDEA has not complied with Executive Order 13160’s reporting requirement to the Department of Justice for many years.
During the first three years, DoDEA needed to file a report each year. From then on, the filings were due every three years. Specifically, DoDEA was required to file reports in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2015, but did not file anything, which may mean no reports were ever filed. When Roeder requested confirmation that her complaint had been forwarded to the Department of Justice, a DoDEA FOIA officer responded, “After the search of their electronic and paper files, it was reported, they did not have documents in their files responsive to your request,” she said.
“I don’t know if this means they never wrote the reports, they lost the reports or no one ever complained; however, I know that I did [file a report] and my complaint was never reported,” Roeder said.
After she received this report from DoDEA, Roeder requested an official investigation. As of this article’s posting, there has not yet been a response to the investigation, though one is expected soon.
Roeder said that she hopes the investigation will fund Title IX coordinators for DoDEA schools with responsibilities comparable to those that work in public schools. “I hope there will be a coordinator for each DoDEA school, or at least one in each military community,” she said.
She would also like to see student-oriented outreach materials in schools and in student handbooks detailing school responsibilities and student rights in cases of sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape; a requirement that investigations comply with Title IX requirements as they would in federally funded public schools; an appeals process with outside oversight that responds to student and parent concerns in a timely manner; and an education plan put in place so that potential victims and bystanders can identify the behaviors of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape and understand how to respond.
How you can make real change for military kids
Since Roeder’s story came out in 2016, many parents in the DoDEA community have rallied for a change. But these things can take time and they sometimes require more than just one community coming together in support.
“Military families are stressed on so many levels; however, what is at stake is the education and well-being of our children. To me, that is worth whatever time and energy it takes,” Roeder said.
So how can you help?
- Advocate for your student if you have one in the DoDEA system. If a portion of disciplinary policy doesn’t make sense, ask more questions. Be prepared to research regulations yourself, rather than accepting someone else’s interpretation. Find like-minded parents who can join you in support.
- Share this information with your community, your family, your friends, and your neighbors. Educate others about the issue and why it requires action.
- Go to community forum meetings, attend SAC meetings, work the DoDEA chain of command and make leadership directly aware of the problem. Interactive Customer Evaluation complaints are not enough as they may be diverted to the school system rather than provided to leadership.
- Write to your senator and representative. Tell them why it is important to make a change and that the children in DoDEA schools deserve the same protections as those in public schools. Those in overseas locations rarely have the option to attend a public or private school, so it’s either DoDEA or homeschooling (which not all families can afford or manage). Here’s an easy way to write an effective letter to Congress:
— Send letters to your local representative or the senators from your state (or all three). Even if you live overseas, your Congressmen still stand to represent you and your home state.
— Keep your letter to about a page. Three paragraphs tend to have the most impact. Your first paragraph should say who you are and why you’re writing. Your second paragraph should provide details and rely on facts instead of emotion. Provide specific information about how the topic affects you and people you know. Your third paragraph should be in closing and request the action you want. In this case, suggest a change to the DoDEA policy to put Title IX at the forefront.