Portland Public Schools revamps student anti-harassment rules
A year and a half ago, Cleveland High School student Annabelle Schwartz testified before the Portland Public Schools Board and delivered an uncomfortable message.
Students who had been victimized sexually by fellow students weren't getting any help from principals, who seemed to dismiss the claims or wanted to simply turn them over to police. In many cases, federal education law requires more.
"When survivors go to administrators with allegations of sexual assault they're basically getting nothing but an, 'I'm sorry,'" is how Schwartz now sums up her 2015 complaint.
On Tuesday, however, the school board will hear a proposal spearheaded by Schwartz, an 18-year-old senior, to strengthen the district's student anti-harassment policy. It offers clearer guidelines to principals on their responsibility to investigate all claims promptly and to determine whether an alleged assailant needs to be punished or expelled. It also directs students with questions to a coordinator of sexual-assault prevention and response, a new position being created this year for the 2017-18 school year.
And for the first time it specifically calls out sexual assault and sexual abuse as prohibited behavior. Until now, PPS's written policy was more limited, specifically forbidding sexual harassment among students but leaving unmentioned other behaviors that are outlawed under Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination law that PPS follows as a recipient of federal funds.
"It's insane it took this long to get the words 'sexual assault' or 'sexual violence' in there," says Schwartz, who's a leader with Students Active for Ending Rape, or SAFER.
Except in special circumstances involving student athletes, who must follow student discipline rules throughout their sports seasons, student discipline rules typically apply only to behavior that happens at school. Under Title IX, however, schools have to make sure that no student is excluded from an educational program because of sex discrimination. As a practical matter, that means assaults that happen off campus but that disrupt the school environment can result in discipline.
The new policy spells that out.
Amy Kohnstamm, vice chairwoman of the school board, credits Schwartz with pushing the changes through and says she hopes principals feel they have more clarity going forward. She also wants students to be more aware of the issue.
"This is something we need to be communicating about with our students," she says.
The board is expected to vote on the policy next month.