On Monday, February 15th, New Hanover County Schools’ Title IX Committee decided they still need more time to flesh out the latest survey on school climate. But committee members did weigh-in on the survey’s overall scaffold.
The Title IX Committee was created in 2019 -- and it deals with issues related to sex discrimination and harassment. It’s now tasked with coming up with a survey to assess the prevalence of those issues.
To review what’s happened with the survey since the start of the year: At the New Hanover County School Board meeting on January 5th, 2021, Jarelle Lewis, the Title IX coordinator, presented a draft of the survey to be approved by the board.
Board members Stephanie Walker and Judy Justice, along with Title IX committee member Dr. Jacquelyn White, professor emerita of psychology at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, quickly addressed the absence of a question, included in a previous draft, asking students whether they’ve experienced sexual harassment.
Board member Nelson Beaulieu had concerns about adding the question because it might trigger or cause emotional harm to students. He was also concerned with an anonymous survey, “There would be some legal hurdles to get over,” since they are a mandatory reporting body if an incident of sexual assault was disclosed.
After the school board’s discussion, they then sent it back to the Title IX committee to improve the survey and address the absence of the sexual harassment question. Since then, there have been two meetings to discuss the survey rewrite. But even after those, there are no official recommendations on the table.
While the committee has more or less settled on some specific aspects of the survey, these are still subject to change.
One aspect the committee has firmed up is that the survey will be multiple-choice; members decided that if any open-ended questions were included, it could be confusing for students. There also isn’t a guarantee that anyone could respond directly to open-ended comments.
Committee members are also leaning toward limiting questions about sexual misconduct to the last 12-months. This goes counter to what some in the community wanted to find out: Whether there are still students who suffered sexual abuse from three former district teachers, all of whom have been separated from the district for at least a year.
But officials with New Hanover County Schools do not see this survey as a way to report sexual misconduct. Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Julie Varnam says there are ways for students to report misconduct anonymously through an online portal called Ethix360 or through their SaySomething app.
Following these past two Title IX meetings, which took place on February 5th and February 15th, there are still some components of the survey to work out.
Confidentiality versus ‘Privacy’
Previous drafts of the survey included language about keeping confidentiality. But according to the last subcommittee meeting on February 5th, Varnam said that the school system cannot promise anonymity with the survey. One of the reasons she cited was the potential hacking of student data. Lewis did say that they could promise ‘privacy’ but did not elaborate on what that meant.
Dr. White said when they conducted studies at UNC-Greensboro that the IT department put in security layers to protect a student’s identity and asked if the district could do the same. Both Varnam and Lewis responded that they didn’t know if that was possible (no one from the IT department was present at the meeting to answer that particular question).
There were also proposals to send the survey link to students’ district email accounts, which also raises questions about keeping confidentiality.
Sexual Misconduct versus Other Title IX Issues
From these meetings, it appears likely that there will be some sort of question on the topic of sexual misconduct, but the voting committee members of Stephanie Kraybill, Stephanie Walker, Julie Varnam, Amy Feath, Amy Oots, Tanya Jordan, Jacquelyn White, and Patrick McCarty are leaning towards including other questions on Title IX issues. According to Lewis, these would be topics related to sports compliance, educational access, and sex discrimination. However, questions associated with these topics haven’t yet been discussed in a public forum.
There are also two specific questions the committee wants to add that deal with the issues of sexual misconduct. One, Lewis said, would ask about where incidents happen, “It looks like based on the responses, we believe it’s important to know what’s happening to students in school as well as out of school and how that impacts them in a Title IX area.”
Another question to be included, Lewis said, would be whether a student engages in this type of misconduct, “We definitely want to know what role our students are playing in these incidents whether they are a bystander or they’re impacted, or they’re actually committing some of these offenses.”
Take Survey ‘In School’ versus ‘Out of School’
According to the questionnaire filled out by the voting members of the Title IX committee, it’s the majority’s preference that students would have the option to take the survey either at home or at school.
This is counter to what Tanya Jordan, supervisor of school counseling and social work, is advocating for, which is that counselors be present when students take the survey so that they can provide emotional support if needed. Jordan’s suggestion echoes Beaulieu’s concern that the survey might be upsetting to a student who has experienced sexual harassment or abuse. However, Dr. White maintains that, according to her research on the topic, students actually tend to feel relieved that someone asked the question.
To potentially assuage some of these concerns, Committee Members Kraybill and Varnam wanted to have a parent night to explain why the school system is conducting the survey and answer any questions they might have.
The only question that the members voted 100% for was that the survey be opt-out, meaning that parents and students would specifically have to say that they don’t want to take the survey. This is counter to opt-in, where parents and students would have to volunteer to take it.
The subcommittee didn't reach a majority on a timeline for releasing the survey. Of seven members weighing in, two suggested no sooner than Fall 2021, two suggested waiting until NHCS returns to full-time, in-class instruction for all grades, and four voted for by the end of the 2020-2021 academic year.
[Editor's note: The survey timeline reported in this article has been updated based on additional information provided by the district on Wednesday, Feb. 17.]
The resources subcommittee will meet again next week to hash out further details of the survey. It isn’t yet clear whether another draft of the Title IX survey will be ready for the board by their next meeting on Tuesday, March 2nd.
-To watch the last Title IX meeting on February 15th, click here.
-Here is a link to the results of the Office of Civil Rights recommended survey for the Palo Alto School District in response to incidents of sexual harassment. This survey has been talked about as a potential model for the NHCS school climate survey.
Below: Results of the Title IX subcommittee questions.