A disturbing statistic is amplified by recent headlines: Sexual assault is believed to occur at the same rate in high school as in college.
About one in every five young women is affected.
Parents and students in the Shawnee Mission School District are reeling from the news that a 15-year-old Leawood boy is charged with four felonies for allegedly fondling two girls at Shawnee Mission East High School and for another reported incident while he was in middle school.
Thankfully, the Shawnee Mission district did not make the misstep that many colleges make. And that is to assume that allowing law enforcement and prosecutors to take over absolves them of liability. It doesn’t. Not under the law.
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Consistently, the district has emphasized that it conducted its own investigation and took disciplinary action against the boys involved at the high school. Only one boy has been charged in the juvenile division of Johnson County District Court. But another boy held the bathroom door shut while one alleged crime occurred. The district has said that the boy manning the door didn’t realize what was happening.
What’s a bigger unknown is how the district followed through after the first incident in 2015, when the boy facing the charges reportedly exposed himself to a girl at Indian Hills Middle School in Prairie Village. The boy apologized and was in counseling, part of the stipulations agreed to in the family’s initial decision not to file charges.
Privacy laws, and the fact that juveniles are involved, makes these situations incredibly complicated for any district.
Students often know which classmates are involved, so managing social media is another complication. It’s been heartwarming how widespread the support was for the girls. It grew from Shawnee Mission East to other schools in the metro area, including the all-boys Rockhurst High School. Sometimes, it’s youth who lead.
Worrisome is that the boy appears to have escalated his behavior. In middle school, he reportedly tricked a girl into looking under a table where he exposed himself. In the recent incident, he allegedly trapped a girl in a bathroom and fondled her. By law, the district must safeguard the environment of its schools under Title IX.
Shawnee Mission appears to be maneuvering well between what should be handled by police and prosecutors, what is public information and its obligations under the law to keep its students safe.
But if they hadn’t, if the district had chosen to cover up the incident, parents would have few places to turn to for information.
A 1990 law, the Clery Act, covers such instances on college campuses that receive federal funding. There is nothing similar in place for K-12 education. It’s largely up to the district to do the right thing.
Clery is a consumer-protection law. Colleges and universities must be forthcoming with current and prospective students about incidents of crime on campus. Institutions also must outline policies and procedures within annual security reports for managing timely warnings and emergency notifications about dangers, along with options for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.
High school students deserve these protections as well.
In recent years, federal investigations of high schools for inappropriately handling incidents of sexual assault have increased. In 2014, the Department of Education stepped up its efforts to help districts and to press awareness of sexual violence as a form of sexual harassment. At the same time, the student who has been accused, especially in lieu of charges, also deserves his or her right to an education.
Like some colleges, school districts have been accused of misunderstanding that Title IX, a 1972 law, makes them responsible for the safety of all students, not only the person who has reported an assault. That means how they manage the entire campus — the fear that others will be assaulted — is amplified. Some advocates maintain that high schools are more lax than universities in following the law.
Finally, an attitudinal problem that often affects college campuses comes into play at high schools and middle schools. Maybe even more so given the younger ages of the accused. And that’s a hesitation to acknowledge the serious nature of an incident.
Kind-hearted educators are hard-wired to consider the young people in their midst as young adults who require molding, allowing them to make mistakes that they can learn from.
It’s a benevolent approach, but taken too far, it can shelter what is a criminal act.