The new Seattle school chief has asked senior staff to review how the district handles sexual-harassment complaints in order to improve training, investigation practices, compliance with federal law and remedies for victims.
Interim Superintendent Larry Nyland announced the review at Wednesday’s School Board meeting.
The review stems from allegations that a male student raped a female student in November 2012 during a Garfield High School field trip to an outdoor-education program in Olympic National Park. Both were sophomores at the time.
The FBI and the National Park Service both investigated the case because the alleged sexual assault occurred within federal jurisdiction, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not file charges.
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The parents of the girl, who now live out of state, have filed a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, accusing the district of discriminating against their daughter by failing to do its own investigation promptly or appropriately and failing to protect their daughter from retaliation from other students after she reported the incident.
Title IX often is associated with sports, but it is also designed to protect students from sexual assault and harassment.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is investigating the complaint, but noted that decision does not reflect its opinion on the merits of the allegations.
The district also said Wednesday that it is working with the OCR on a resolution agreement that likely would affect how the district handles such issues in the future, and not re-examine what happened in 2012.
Board President Sharon Peaslee assured the audience at the board meeting, which included about a dozen protesters holding signs, that the board takes the matter seriously and will seek to correct any deficiencies in how the district handles sexual assault and discrimination issues.
“I would also like to ask everyone to please consider that we live in a society where everyone is innocent until proven guilty. There have been two criminal investigations around this and no one was charged. No one was charged with rape,” Peaslee said. “There is much to what happened that night that is unknown to almost everyone.”
District officials have said they were told not to interview witnesses in the case until the federal authorities had completed their work, and they learned the investigation had concluded without charges in early April 2013.
The district then hired an attorney, Richard Kaiser, to conduct an independent investigation. Kaiser interviewed staff, students and the accused boy. However, Kaiser reported that the girl’s parents did not allow him to interview their daughter, who was out of the state.
Kaiser also reported that he was unable to obtain the investigative reports from the National Park Service and the FBI through a public-records request. Although the girl’s parents have both reports, they’ve been willing to release only excerpts, according to the district. Without the complete law-enforcement reports or medical records, the district says it has only a partial account of what happened and some conflicting reports from witnesses and from the information the parents have provided.
Their daughter never returned to Garfield.
In his report, Kaiser concluded from other witnesses that at some point after lights out on the second night of the three-day field trip, the alleged victim was one of a number of students who left their cabins after curfew. Kaiser said the girl climbed out of her cabin’s window, and then climbed through a window in the boys’ cabin, where she joined a male student on his bed. Kaiser said the male told the school’s principal and Kaiser that they had consensual sex in his bunk. At least one other student told Kaiser he was in the room at the time.
The girl’s parents say she was sexually assaulted, with the boy ignoring their daughter when she told him to stop. They blame poor chaperoning for creating an unsafe environment.
In January, then-Superintendent José Banda, responding to the parents’ initial complaint to the district, determined there was insufficient evidence to conclude the girl was sexually harassed or assaulted.
The parents appealed to the School Board, which upheld the superintendent’s decision in March. They also appealed to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The parents have lodged more than 200 allegations against Seattle school-district staff, including accusations that some employees lied to them. The district again hired Kaiser to investigate the allegations of lying, but he concluded that while employees sometimes conveyed inaccurate details about the field trip, they did not intentionally deceive the parents.