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  • Evie Blad

#MeTooK12 Seeks to Spotlight Problem of Sexual Assault in Schools

A small organization launched a #MeTooK12 campaign this week with the hope of harnessing the massive media coverage of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace to spark a conversation about the problem of sexual violence in public schools.

Stop Sexual Assault in Schools—founded by parents who say their daughter was sexually assaulted by a classmate on a Seattle school field trip—said in announcing the campaign that it wants to encourage student victims of such sexual violence to share their stories. The organization also hopes "secondary victims," including friends and family members of those who have been assaulted, will share how the problem affects the greater school population.

While celebrities and politicians have rallied to the cause of women speaking out about sexual harassment at work under the hashtag #MeToo, sexual violence at schools has received less attention, the organization says.

"Few people of influence understand how sexual harassment and assault devastate the lives of K-12 students, their families, and friends—beginning in elementary school; and the younger the victim, the more devastating the impact and greater vulnerability to repeated assault," Stop Sexual Assault in Schools said in an announcement. "Not only do the survivors' emotional and psychological scars endure long after the incidents, their social lives, education, and career dreams can be shattered."

Student Victims of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment

Victims' advocacy groups say the problem of sexual harassment and assault in schools is not widely understood by the public. That may be because federal data doesn't fully capture the scale of the issue, they say.

Seventy-nine percent of schools that teach students in grades 7-12 reported zero incidents of sexual harassment in 2013-14, according to an analysis of the most recent federal data by the American Association of University Women. It's unlikely those schools actually had no incidents, interim vice president for policy and government relations Ann Hedgepath told a congressional panel in October because student surveys and other data sources show assault and harassment are much more common.

While policy conversations about sexual violence in educational settings typically focus on colleges and universities, federal officials have taken action in K-12 schools as well. Schools can be found in violation of the federal Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination, if they don't adequately respond to student complaints of sexual violence and bullying. The U.S. Department of Education office for civil rights, which enforces education civil rights laws, saw an increase in complaints about sexual violence at elementary and secondary schools from 2009-16, the years of the Obama administration, according to a federal report released in 2016.

That increase coincided with a federal campaign to address sexual assault on college campuses, which centered on new guidance that directed schools, colleges, and universities about students' rights under Title IX. Among other things, that guidance said schools required less evidence to act on student claims of sexual violence than they would in formal criminal proceedings.

Advocacy groups praised the guidance for drawing attention to the issue. But some education organizations, including K-12 groups, said investigations of assault and harassment can be difficult, often pitting the word of one student against another.

The Trump administration withdrew that guidance last year, citing concerns about due process rights for college students accused of assault. Officials have not specified a timeline for releasing revised guidance.

Esther Warkov and Joel Levin founded Stop Sexual Assault in Schools to provide resources for families about schools' obligations under Title IX after they say their daughter was raped on a field trip in 2012, the organization's website says.

Among other concerns, the family said the school district did not respond to its complaint quickly enough. The Seattle school district later entered a $700,000 settlement with the family. Without admitting any wrongdoing, the district committed to updating policies for overnight field trips and updated training on Title IX compliance issues.

"Our family was thrown into chaos for months, just attending to the immediate trauma from the rape itself," Warkov recently said in an interview with the National Women's Law Center. "At the same time, we struggled to piece together our daughter's education. We were constantly stymied by school staff who gave us contradictory information and were obviously unaware of how to handle the situation."

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