Parents in Harrington reacted with understandable anger and frustration when they learned an 11-year-old charged with sexually assaulting an 8-year-old was allowed to remain in the same school as his alleged victim.
Many kept their children home in protest; they held a long meeting with the superintendent; a school board member resigned; and a petition is asking for a review of School Administrative District 37’s policies.
The public doesn’t know precisely what steps Harrington Elementary School took to protect the alleged victim, because of privacy laws. In general, one would hope schools would pursue every means possible to protect both sides while maintaining the opportunity for learning.
Could the child accused of the crime be tutored? Could a superintendent’s agreement be reached to send the child elsewhere? What about online learning? Could a supervision plan keep both students away from one another within the same school?
Schools do not need to — and should not — wait before a criminal investigation or criminal proceeding is over to take immediate actions to protect the alleged victim and other students.
District officials have maintained they made sure students were safe. They have also said their authority to remove the child was limited because the alleged gross sexual assault did not occur on school property. The district has a bullying policy that can sometimes be applied to conduct that occurs outside of school, but it apparently did not fit the circumstances of this case.
There are instances, however, when districts can and should take steps to respond to incidents that occur off school grounds, especially sexual assaults. Those rules are laid out in Title IX, federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in public education programs. It considers sexual violence a form of sex discrimination.
In April 2011, the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education developed guidance for school districts across the country to help them meet their legal obligations when handling sexual violence that occurs both on and off school property.
The document states: “Schools should consider the effects of the off-campus conduct when evaluating whether there is a hostile environment on campus. … The school also should take steps to protect a student who was assaulted off campus from further sexual harassment or retaliation from the perpetrator.”
It describes how to determine whether there is a “hostile environment”: It can be created by repeated harassment, for example, or “a single instance of rape.”
It also explains that schools can consider certain conduct as sexual violence under Title IX even if police do not have enough evidence of a criminal violation. They have more leeway to remedy the situation.
The case in Harrington should be a reminder to school districts to ensure they have the best plan in place if one of their students is ever the victim or perpetrator of sexual violence. Both sides will need help.
There are specific steps to consider. Students may need counseling, medical services or academic support, such as tutoring. Staff should be prepared; for example, they might need to review the alleged victim’s discipline history to see if the assault was connected in some way to misconduct in school.
Informational material — about what constitutes sexual violence, what to do if a student is a victim and how to file a complaint — should be distributed widely and posted throughout school buildings.
Districts can also ensure they have an eye on prevention. They can take advantage of free educational classes offered by nearby sexual assault resource centers. They can make sure students are in an environment that encourages reports of sexual assault — and that coaches, teachers and administrators are all on the same page. For example, do students know drinking alcohol never makes the victim at fault for sexual assault?
Step by step, schools can be even stronger allies in the long-standing war against sexual violence.