Concord School District working to update sexual harassment policies to meet new federal standards

Monitor staff
Published: 8/2/2020 5:18:56 PM

School districts in New Hampshire and across the country are working quickly this month to update their sexual harassment policies to comply with new federal standards before an August deadline.

In a meeting of the Concord School Board’s Communications and Policy Committee on Wednesday night, Title IX coordinator Karen Fischer-Anderson spoke to board members about changes that need to be made to the district’s policies to comply with new directives that were released by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos in May.

“This whole policy is less survivor/victim-friendly than the last one,” Fischer-Anderson said.

The new federal Title IX standards offer a narrower definition of harassment, requiring that it must be “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive.” Previously, behavior could be considered harassment if it was either severe, pervasive or objectively offensive.

The new federal standards make it very clear that the district is required to investigate any complaint of sexual harassment that a school employee hears about, regardless of whether the incident happened on campus or during school activities off-campus. Schools can’t use just a single official to investigate and judge complaints. The investigator can’t be the same person who determines consequences.

“Basically, anybody can report sexual harassment anytime ... to any person, by mail, telephone, electronic mail, verbally or in a written report,” Fischer-Anderson said. “Somebody can walk into my office to make a report or – and this is what we really need to train our employees on – any employee in a school K-12, if they learn of a report or hear of something, the school district then has actual notice.”

Once the school employee hears a report, the employee is required to report because it triggers the school’s response obligations.

“It can be a suspicion, it can be something they overheard,” Superintendent Kathleen Murphy said. “You don’t need to prove it before you bring it forward.”

Retaliation against a complainant, a respondent or any of the witnesses is also a focus of the policy. Retaliation against a complainant was highlighted as a problem in the Perkins report released last month about the district’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations by former teacher Howie Leung.

“A large part of this Title IX policy, and what I think should be a large part of Concord School District policy, is if there’s retaliation separate and distinct from a violation of the policy, we will handle that,” Fischer-Anderson said.

Student reports of assault or harassment must be followed up by communication with the students involved and their parents about the allegations and evidence. The accused person has 10 days to respond, and the victim must be told in writing if the accused person will receive a punishment. Schools will have to record actions taken in response to reports, and save the records for at least seven years.

“Huge emphasis now on maintaining records of investigations,” Fischer-Anderson said. “Also, any written materials that are used to train on Title IX and its policy must be maintained on the website, or copies made available to the public if requested.”

School board president Jennifer Patterson said Wednesday’s meeting, which was held solely to figure out how comply with the new federal regulations, is separate from the other work the board plans to do with community members to update the sexual harassment policy in light of the Leung misconduct allegations and the Perkins report. Patterson added that work will continue in September.

“You’re trying to make this as strong as we can, and as strong as when we reviewed the policy last year,” Patterson told Fischer-Anderson. “That is challenging because we are trying to align the legal requirements under N.H. law, the thoughtful policy work we already engaged in, the thoughts that you yourself had going in and looking at what we should be doing, and trying to align that with the new federal rule which is less protective of the victims.”

According to law, the sexual harassment policy must be reader-friendly to make it accessible to students, educators and parents, and Fischer-Anderson’s got a lot of ideas for how to distribute the information.

“We’re doing posters, we’re going to post this policy, once it’s ready, in student handbooks,” Fischer-Anderson said. “I would like to do a video for our website for those who don’t want to read through a 24-page policy. I would also like to do a question-and-answer for some of them.”

Fischer-Anderson will continue to provide sexual harassment training within the district as well.

“I’ll do it as many times, to as small or as large an audience as we need to,” she said.

She has already done an overview of Title IX to most of Concord’s principals at the elementary, middle and high school level, and has done training on how to be an investigator with certain district officials. She also said she has done a few trainings on bullying, boundary violations and grooming techniques.

At the end of Wednesday’s meeting, the Communications and Policy Committee voted unanimously, 4-0, to send the policy to the full school board for a first reading on Aug. 10.

The school board will meet next on Aug. 3 for a regular monthly meeting, and will convene again Aug. 10 for a special meeting to read the policy and discuss implementing it before DeVos’s Aug. 14 deadline.


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