Here's the heart of the debate over NHCS asking students about sexual harassment

Jan 20, 2021

New Hanover County Schools is looking to revamp their district-wide Title IX survey. Proposed questions would include topics on discrimination, bullying, and school climate. And maybe one on sexual harassment.

Title IX is a law that bans discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally-supported education program or activity. It has also been used in court cases to prevent sexual harassment and abuse.

Because of three recent high-profile cases of teachers sexually abusing students, New Hanover County Schools created a Title IX Committee and have since hired both a full-time coordinator and investigator.  

 

With this proposed anonymous and voluntary survey for students, the school system would explore further issues with Title IX compliance. But contention around adding a certain question is partially to blame for its delayed rollout. 

Julie Varnam is the assistant superintendent of support services.

“On the whole, I am concerned with maybe asking an anonymous question of, have you been the victim of either harassment, discrimination, bullying, or sexual harassment and then not really having an opportunity to respond to that.”

Tanya Jordan is the system’s supervisor of school counseling & social work. She shares similar concerns:

“We start off counseling sessions by educating students on our limits to confidentiality and explain to them when we have to breach our confidentiality to get them additional supports, so that would be another good introductory way of being able to make students aware of how this survey information may be used.”

But Dr. Jacquelyn White, professor emerita of psychology at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, who’s also a part of the Title IX Committee, explains what’s at stake if the question is not included:

“The version that they have right now just asked the sort of general question if you had any experiences with bullying or harassment, students are not going to necessarily think about sexual assault experiences as a form of bullying or harassment. It’s not going to help the school come up with prevention programs, intervention programs, resources because they don’t know enough about the specific nature of what happened.”

Committee member Amy Feath is the executive director of The Carousel Center, she leads the subcommittee that is now tasked with hashing out how the survey is written:

“Yes, I do think we should include that question. I do think that it’s important to go ahead and ask it. If you’re going to ask it, we have to have a way to then help whoever says yes.”

Feath says one way could be a clear listing of resources for students to report sexual harassment or abuse. And the county does in fact have two ways to report anonymously, through their ETHICX360 portal or their ‘Say Something’ app.  

And as for concerns with anonymity on the survey, Dr. White says there is a precedent: 

“There’s a survey that’s been given in the schools across the country for years, and it has some very, very sensitive information questions in it. And school systems have been allowed to administer that survey without the requirement that they have to report when students report that they’ve been victimized in some ways.”

It’s called the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey -- and it’s run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The survey is both voluntary and anonymous. 

 

For this year's high school survey, they'll ask questions like, "Have you ever been physically forced to have sexual intercourse when you did not want to?” and "During the past 12 months, how many times did anyone force you to do sexual things that you did not want to do? (Count such things as kissing, touching, or being physically forced to have sexual intercourse.)"

 

As for whether the question involving sexual harassment might make it on a New Hanover County Schools survey, Jarelle Lewis, the system’s Title IX coordinator says, “It really depends on the goal of the Committee as a whole.” 

Officials note that the survey currently being debated is only one step in a longer process. The next Title IX Committee is February 15th. 

 

NHCS has sent the following statement, "NHCS’ review of survey questions is ongoing and no definitive determinations regarding questions have been made at this time. We are working together with our committee members to develop the best survey possible. You can view the next Title IX committee meeting on NHCS-TV's Youtube page on February 15th at 3pm." 

 

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North Carolina law mandates that adults must report physical or sexual abuse of minors to law enforcement and to the Department of Social Services. That law might be getting in the way of New Hanover County Schools asking about abuse in an anonymous survey. 

 

The school system is now debating whether to ask a student whether or not they’ve been sexually harassed on a school campus.

And there is a discussion over how that question would be worded if it were included at the middle and high school levels. 

Amy Feath is the executive director of The Carousel Center and a member of New Hanover County Schools’ Title IX Committee. She says there’s also a concern about reaching even younger students. 

 

“The kids coming to Carousel Center, mostly are kids that are eight to ten years of age, that’s our average age of children that are experiencing physical, sexual violence, physical or sexual abuse and or neglect. So in that regard, we’re already too late at middle school about asking the questions that will set our kids up with the skills and the tools they need to know where to go for assistance.” 

 

Feath says the Darkness to Light program, run by The Carousel Center, gives all New Hanover County Schools staff the tools to prevent, recognize, and react to child sexual abuse.