School Districts are required by both federal and state law to have policies preventing harassment and discrimination against its students.
These policies must include procedures for how to report instances of discrimination and harassment, how long the district has to respond and how to appeal the district’s decisions surrounding the incident.
The Daily Union recently reported that Jefferson County schools have not been spared the impacts of harassment and discrimination against protected classes of people.
For example, the Whitewater Unified School District had the highest rate of harassment and discrimination in the county, with 3.6 reports of harassment or discrimination per every 100 students from 2013-2018. Meanwhile, in the Johnson Creek School District, which didn’t report any instances of harassment or discrimination over that time period, a 14-year-old student was harassed so badly recently that her mother was forced to turn to the court system to obtain a restraining order.
Education policy experts say it’s important for a district’s policies to be clear and available for those who need to use them.
Julie Incitti, a consultant who works with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), said districts need to make sure students know their rights while parents and community members understand how the process works.
Incitti said this involves making sure each and every student has a “trusted adult” in the building who they can report an incident to, publishing policies in student handbooks and district websites and ensuring everyone knows who the district has designated to handle and investigate reports.
The harassment and discrimination policies of each district in Jefferson County vary slightly, but because of the guidelines outlined by DPI, function in essentially the same way. Some district policies broadly define the issue and how staff must respond, while others are much more specific.
But in all districts, these policies are set by the school board.
An important distinction when dealing with these policies is the definition of harassment and discrimination. In order to rise to the level of these distinctions, the incident must take place against a “protected class.”
This means, according to the School District of Fort Atkinson’s policies, “based on the traits of sex (including transgender status, change of sex, or gender identity), race, color, national origin, religion, creed, ancestry, marital or parental status, sexual orientation or physical, mental, emotional or learning disability, or any other characteristic protected by Federal or state civil rights laws.”
If the incident being reported has not involved a member of a protected class, it more likely is to fall under the district’s anti-bullying policies.
To begin the process, a student or parent only needs to tell someone in the building about the incident. District staff all are mandated reporters, meaning they have to pass along a complaint if one is made to them.
Districts vary in how long the staff member has to pass the report along — though most say two business days — and whether a complaint can be made orally.
But regardless of the specific rules, staff members have to send the report up the chain of command — usually to what is called a district’s compliance officer.
The compliance officer is a designated employee who is tasked with investigating the report. State law mandates how long the person has to complete the investigation but each district outlines different processes for investigation of complaints.
A few of the districts in the county, including Fort Atkinson, lay out specifically how the complaint must be investigated.
“Although certain cases may require additional time, the Compliance Officer will attempt to complete an investigation into the allegations of harassment within fifteen (15) calendar days of receiving the formal complaint,” Fort Atkinson’s policy states. “The investigation will include: interviews with the complainant; interviews with the respondent; interviews with any other witnesses who may reasonably be expected to have any information relevant to the allegations; consideration of any documentation or other evidence presented by the complainant, respondent, or any other witness which is reasonably believed to be relevant to the allegations.”
Most district policies suggest attempting to resolve the complaint informally — meaning that the students and their parents all meet with the school officials to determine the best way to handle the issue moving forward.
If an informal resolution isn’t adequate, districts offer formal complaint procedures that involve a report being written and potential disciplinary actions against the accused student.
This is the end of the school district’s staff being directly involved in the handling of the complaint. From here, if a student or parent still is unsatisfied with the result, there are a few options to continue the process.
In some districts, including Watertown, the decision made by the district administrator or compliance officer can be appealed to the school board. The Watertown Unified School District policy regarding an appeal to the school board says the board must meet with the concerned parents within 45 days of the appeal and make a decision within 10 days after the meeting.
The next step is appealing the decision to DPI, making a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) or going to the courts.
An appeal to DPI must be made in writing within 30 days of the district’s final action and the department only has the authority to make the district comply with state law.
“In an appeal, if the department determines the school district has acted in violation of the Wisconsin pupil nondiscrimination law, the superintendent can issue an order requiring the school district to comply with the law, and require that the school district develop and submit a corrective action plan to prevent further discrimination,” the DPI website states. “The superintendent does not have the authority to award monetary relief, or impose or order discipline on teachers or school district staff.”
A civil rights complaint can be made online, in writing or through email. It must be filed within 180 days of the last act of discrimination. A complaint can be made at any step of the process, but OCR won’t get involved if the case is already being handled by another agency.
OCR has the authority to investigate complaints, mediate agreements between complainants and schools and mandate districts enact certain policies.
In certain instances, students can go to the circuit court system. For example, a student in Johnson Creek recently obtained a two-year restraining order against another student who had been harassing her.
In order to get a restraining order, the person must prove to a judge the abuse occurred.