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Three years after federal complaint, NHCS admits Title IX failures

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From the first page of the NHCS report to federal civil rights officials (redactions performed by NHCS).

The New Hanover County School district admits in a federally-mandated report that it failed to provide a prompt and fully equitable handling of a student’s sexual assault complaint, contradicting years of assertions to the contrary from former top administrators.

The district claims it was unable to ascertain if those failures had caused lasting impacts on the student involved. In an addendum to the report, the district responded to a related complaint by denying that former administrators had retaliated against the parents of the student.

 

Editor's note: The report and addendum can be found at the end of this article. Both have been redacted by NHCS to comply with federal privacy laws.

The issue dates back to 2015, when a Hoggard High School student was sexually assaulted off campus by a fellow student. School and administration officials failed to prevent the student from coming into daily contact with her assailant for months, declining to enforce a court’s restraining order, and eventually telling the victim that she could relocate to another school if she felt uncomfortable. The situation led to a series of complaints, filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR); the Office oversees issues with Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in access to education --- including situations where sexual harassment or hostile environments stemming from off-campus assaults can interfere with educational activities.

The report was required by a resolution agreement between the district and the OCR. The OCR’s resolution agreement ordered NHCS to review two issues: (1) whether the district’s response to a student’s sexual assault complaint was prompt and equitable, and (2) whether the student has any “continuing effects” from the district’s potential failure that can be addressed.

In reviewing the first issue, the district admits “the available evidence does not establish that NHCS’ [sic] response to [the student’s] sexual assault compliant was prompt or fully equitable.” The district also admits that there is “no documentation” that former Deputy Superintendent Dr. James ‘Rick’ Holliday, who was for years NHCS’s Title IX coordinator, “received training or had particular experience in resolving sexual assault complaints before handling [the student’s] complaint.”

In 2017, Holliday claimed that because the sexual assault took place off campus it did not present a Title IX issue for the district. Holliday called the issue a "he said, she said" situation, and repeatedly claimed the school had no Title IX responsibility and had acted promptly and appropriately. These claims were repeated by then-Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley. Whether willful or through ignorance, these assertions were incorrect.

In its report to the OCR, NHCS acknowledges that it failed to determine what the on-campus effects of the off-campus assault may have been. “[T]here is no evidence that shows NHCS conducted a full review of the effects of the alleged incident to determine if there was a hostile environment,” the report states.

The district also acknowledges that in the months between being notified of the assault and finally transferring the assailant, “there were no documents that showed whether NHCS reviewed, offered, or implemented any other interim measures.” In its report, NHCS writes that “this case was not particularly complex and did not involve numerous parties and witnesses,” and that there was “no apparent justification” for how long it took NHCS to resolve the issue.

The district noted that “[s]ince the allegations giving rise to this [Title IX] complaint, NHCS has implemented numerous steps, including training for school administrators, to ensure prompt and equitable responses to sexual harassment complaints moving forward.” Additional measures, including training requirements, have also been mandated by the OCR.

With regard to the second issue, the district wrote that “because this matter occurred [5] years ago and [the student] is no longer an enrolled student, it cannot be determined whether [the student] has any continuing effects that the District can address at this time.” Despite ongoing communication between the district and the New Hanover County Board of Education and the family, the district could not provide any evidence that it attempted to contact the student to discuss this issue and declined to answer additional questions about how it attempted to determine the ‘effects’ on the student involved.

The issue of retaliation was covered by a related OCR complaint and involved allegations that former Superintendent Markley contacted the employer of the student’s father, a long-serving deputy in the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. Markley was suspended without pay last year over a similar incident involving the Superintendent’s unsuccessful attempts to silence criticism from UNCW Professor Clyde Edergeton by contacting his supervisors.

The district’s investigation indicated that it was Deputy Superintendent Holliday, not Markley, who had communication with the Sheriff’s Office, including an email in which Holliday suggested to the supervisor of the School Resource Officer program that the father was mentally unstable. These communications related to the father's attempts to advocate for his daughter; several school officials accused the father of being beligerent, which the father has denied.

Ultimately, the issue of whether or not Markley was involved is left unresolved. Jill Wilson, the outside counsel hired by NHCS to investigate, did not interview Markley prior to his quarter-million-dollar resignation settlement, nor did she interview Holliday, who had already retired prior to beginning of the investigation. While NHCS did not categorically deny that Markley or Holliday had retaliated against the parent, it did state in a letter to the father that Wilson “did not uncover and was not made aware of any evidence that [administrators] were discriminatory or retaliatory toward you.”

Beyond providing the documents it had turned over to the federal government, as required by North Carolina open records law, the district declined to comment. Newly minted Board chair Stefanie Zubrick Adams also declined to comment. Holliday, who is named in at least two potentially class-action negligence lawsuits related to child sexual abuse, has not responded to requests for comment in over two years.

Board of Education member Judy Justice did offer the following comment: 

“I am glad that this has finally been presented to the public. The OCR did their job, and they have come to the conclusion, which from a lot of the evidence that we were hearing, [which] is proper. And the students and the families that were involved, this one in particular, definitely need some form of justice. It’s what we should be doing in the future. As we go forward, always treating all students, according to the law. And also according to just what you do decently with, you know, young ladies, young men, their families --- you support them, you listen to them, and … you hold those people accountable that hurt them. This is the case --- and also protect their right to an education.”

Send comments, questions, and tips to Ben Schachtman at Bschachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.

NHCS Title IX Review OCR Complaint (Redacted) by Ben Schachtman on Scribd

NHCS Addendum to Investigation Report (Redacted) by Ben Schachtman on Scribd