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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

New Hanover's long-awaited Title-IX survey results shows concerning levels of harassment, unreported incidents

Christopher Kolar presented the Title IX survey results on February 15th, 2022.
NHCS YouTube
Christopher Kolar presented the Title IX survey results on February 15th, 2022.

At Tuesday night’s New Hanover County School Board meeting, members heard the results of the district’s long-awaited Title IX survey — which included some disturbing numbers. The board also had a tense debate about the power of the board chair over meeting management — and heard the latest data on the contentious issue of suspensions.

2021 Title IX Survey Results

According to the survey results, 62% of middle and high school took the survey, conducted last November. The survey assessed whether they’ve experienced violations of Title IX law like sexual harassment and gender discrimination. In the survey, students were given definitions and examples for sexual harassment and gender discrimination so they could accurately respond to each survey question.

Responding to concerns over the potentially intimate nature of some of these survey questions, the district notified parents — and allowed them to opt-out their students. The district also held a parent’s night to discuss the survey’s components.

Back in January 2021,tensions were high over whether a survey could even ask students about these topics. At one point, it had morphed into a survey about bullying, but some of the members of the district’s Title IX Committee,like Dr. Jacquelyn White and Board Member Stephanie Walker, advocated for including questions about sexual harassment and gender discrimination. The final version of the survey shows that their point-of-view ultimately prevailed.

Consultant Christopher Kolar, who analyzed the results, told the board the number of students saying they’ve been sexually harassed at school is concerning — close to a quarter of middle schoolers report being sexually harassed at least once or twice. For high schoolers, it’s about a third.

Demographically, this harassment is most common among students who identify as transgender, genderqueer, questioning, intersexual, asexual, two spirit, or other non-conforming identities — referred to by Kolar as TQQAI+.

When asked about gender-based harassment, about 73% of TQQAI+ middle school students say they experienced it once or twice. About 37% of female students said the same. For high schoolers, it’s 60% of TQQAI+ students and 37% of female students.

Addressing unreported harassment, student perceptions

Kolar said that unreported sexual harassment is also an issue, as middle schoolers only report about a quarter of the time, and “[w]hen you go to high school, it’s uniformly lower, it’s about 15%. This is not surprising to me, but this is not very good. It’s telling you that the students are not very comfortable coming forward and raising this as an issue.”

Kolar said the district also has to work on changing student perceptions of sexual harassment. He mentioned that one student wrote that they didn’t report because they didn’t want to seem like a "narc."

More concretely, Kolar said when students were asked in the survey, ‘Why didn’t you report the harassment?’“ a good chunk of students selected, ‘It was all in good fun.’

According to Kolar, the district needs to dig into conversations surrounding sexual harassment so that students understand that these incidents are not “all in good fun.”

Kolar also said the district needs to focus on protecting student confidentiality and diminishing the fear of retaliation when reporting harassment and discrimination.

The way in which the district teaches about the complaint process could also be improved, said Kolar. He said he wanted students to understand from start to finish what it means to report sexual or gender-based harassment. And that every “student is taken seriously” when they report an incident.

Kolar also said he wanted the district to include student voices in these discussions around harassment. Also, the stakes are high if students don’t feel comfortable reporting and talking about these issues openly – as “it is common knowledge that sexual harassment and gender-based harassment act as a multiplier for the odds of students committing suicide – and it needs to be taken seriously by the staff when they see it.”

Other strategies

Kolar also presented other strategies for the district to improve on in regards to Title IX issues:

Kolar's analysis of the Title IX survey results.
Kolar, NHCS YouTube
Kolar's analysis of the Title IX survey results.

The district’s Title IX Coordinator, Jarelle Lewis, said these trends were not unexpected — and there’s “definitely more work to do.”

Lewis said that the district will continue educating students through their Shifting Boundaries, Bringing in the Bystander, and Safer, Smarter Kids curricula.

Board member Nelson Beaulieu ended the Title IX survey results conversation by stating: “This is why we’re here – it’s really important to include the student voice.” But in February 2021, Beaulieu said these types of questions might harm students – and that the survey would cause the board to jump through legal hurdles.

Below: Results of the Title IX Survey — article continues below embedded document.

Proposed Changes to Board Meeting Agendas Fails – Policy 2330

The board also tackled the persistent issue of meetings going too long — almost invariably past the four or five hour mark. One of the first agenda items for the evening was for the board to review Policy 2330 which governs how the board conducts its meetings.

Beaulieu said that the Policy Committee recommended a proposed amendment to 2330: “The Board Chair reserves the right to recess or adjourn any board meeting that lasts longer than 4.5 hours and to postpone any remaining items to a subsequent meeting.”

The discussion became contentious when member Judy Justice tried to change the amended policy language to ‘a board majority’ vote instead of the ‘Board Chair’s’ decision to end a meeting.

Vice-Chair Stephanie Walker agreed with Justice that giving the board chair the sole right to end a meeting was too much power for that position – and that the board shouldn’t put time limits on “important work.”

Board Member Stefanie Adams called the conversation “ridiculous," adding that people are tired and don’t want to watch a meeting for longer than 4.5 hours.

Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill chimed in to say that the community had been calling for their meetings to end earlier. Kraybill suggested, and not for the first time, that the board revisit the way in which they conduct the ‘Call to the Audience’ and when they hold closed sessions to cut down on time.

The board did ultimately take a vote on amending Policy 2330 to say, ‘The board reserves the right to recess or adjourn a meeting [...]’ – that passed 4-3, with Kraybill, Adams, and Beaulieu dissenting. But before they got to vote on the original motion — to give that right to the chair, Board Attorney Colin Shive said there wasn’t a reason to amend Policy 2330 at all — because the board already has the power to take a vote to recess or adjourn at any time. Beaulieu then withdrew the amendment that the board chair could end the meeting at 4.5 hours.

Kraybill said, “Fine, let’s just withdraw the proposal and people will continue complaining.”

Some Forest Hills students will be redistricted

In order to reduce student numbers from 475 to 400 at Forest Hills Elementary, some 90 students will be redistricted to either Freeman (70) or Snipes (21) elementary schools for the upcoming 2022-2023 school year.

Planning blocks that will move to Freeman Elementary and Snipes Elementary.
NHCS YouTube
Planning blocks that will move to Freeman Elementary and Snipes Elementary.

Assistant Superintendent Eddie Anderson said that Freeman and Snipes are under capacity and could accept the new students next year without maxing out.

Board member Hugh McManus asked Anderson if Forest Hills would lose positions to these other schools. Anderson said it’s likely four positions would move.

Board member Walker added that Forest Hills needed this assistance — and most board members agreed. The board vote was unanimous to move the students, but in accordance with district policy, any rising 5th grader can decide to remain at Forest Hills.

Student suspension numbers are down

The board also touched on the issue of suspensions. The district has been under pressure to abandon the practice of suspending young students — as well as the use of 'seclusion rooms' — noting that the result is an inequitable impact of minority and disabled students.

Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Julie Varnam presented data that shows that elementary out-of-school suspensions (OSS) are down compared to the previous quarter 2 school years.

However, the totals for in-school suspensions (ISS) "have been fluctuating," according to Varnam.

McManus asked Varnam why they couldn’t rename in-school suspensions because technically they are in school receiving services, but she said the state tracks these numbers, hence they have to use this terminology when reporting these figures.

District elementary schools reported 55 OSS for quarter 2 of this year. Beaulieu asked why these students were suspended. School psychologist Susan Cole, who presented the numbers along with Varnman, said they were mainly instances of fighting and physical aggression.

Cole said the district is working to provide counseling to these students so that they can manage social interactions with their peers and teachers more effectively.

Varnam said she will continue to report the quarterly suspension data for the district’s elementary schools. For the next presentation, Board Members Stephanie Walker and Judy Justice asked for the numbers to be reported for K-2 and 3-5. They mentioned that the community would like to see these breakdowns, likely referring to the active non-profit advocacy group, Love Our Children, who are trying to eliminate suspensions for 4, 5, 6, and 7-year-olds.

Walker also asked Varnam if data on seclusion numbers coincide with these OSS numbers. Varnam said yes, they are connected, and they are continuing to look at reasons why a student would need to be secluded. Cole said these seclusion rooms are only used when the student is a danger to themselves or others in the school building.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR