NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Recent accusations against the school board include allegations that the administration mishandled Title IX cases. While the board’s new Title IX committee is not the internal investigation some have called for, it does represent a significant effort to correct lapses throughout the school system, according to its members.
The allegations came in a report from the Southern Coalition for Equal Protections Under the Law (SCEPUL), a group including Reverend Dante A. Murphy, Pender County NAACP president, and Clyde Edgerton, a UNCW professor, include a range of charges, some criminal, some ethical, and others that fall under an administrative failure to follow federal guidelines like those established by Title IX.
In part as a response to the report, the board formed a new committee, dedicated to Title IX issues, particularly focused on the lack of information and education on the complex federal guidelines at New Hanover County schools.
Port City Daily sat down with the board’s new chairperson, Lisa Estep, and new member Nelson Beaulieu, who are the two board representatives on the Title IX committee, to talk about how the committee was formed, what issues it will address, and what the short and long terms goals are.
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
-Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972
Title IX, a section of the 1972 Education Amendments, was part of a sweeping follow-up to the Civil Rights Act. It’s known to most only as the federal law requiring equal treatment of male and female sports teams – the law that says, for example, if the men’s baseball team has a batting cage, the women’s softball team must equal access to it, or have their own of equal quality.
But while the law is based on a very short statute, its application — shaped by Supreme Court decisions and guidelines issued by the Department of Education — is far more complex, covering among other issues how schools must handle accusations of sexual harassment and assault.
Schools are required, for example, to protect victims of sexual harassment, bullying, or assault from perpetrators – regardless of where those incidents take place – and prevent victims’ access to education from being compromised.
This complexity is designed to maximize protection for victims, but it can also be a roadblock. The law is frequently misunderstood by students, families, faculty, and administration alike. Compounding this is the short window to report Title IX violations – just 180 days.
For this reason, many schools – including UNCW – have dedicated Title IX coordinators, investigators, or caseworkers, as well as dedicated online sites for information.
Forming the Title IX board
The Board’s new Title IX committee came out of a review of the SCEPUL’s report, delivered in December of last year. According to Beaulieu and Estep, the board walked through the allegations in closed session.
“We had a closed session about the cases that Dante Murphy brought forward, and we were looking at the things that were being addressed or not being addressed,” Beaulieu said.
Beaulieu said the new committee was not an investigation of possible Title IX violations (although several are being investigated by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights). Instead, the committee is designed to prevent future cases from slipping through the cracks because of inadequate or hard to find information; it’s also geared towards keeping the school on-track with changes to federal law.
Estep noted that, although technically the board’s chair creates committees, it’s been a largely collaborative process. Estep said she met with Beaulieu, Board Attorney Wayne Bullard, and Superintendent Tim Markley to pick the 21 members of the “starting board,” which could expand in the future.
Current members include Estep, Beaulieu, Bullard, and Markley, as well as Deputy Superintendent and Title IX Coordinator Rick Holliday, and representatives from most schools, Estep said. The committee also includes Janie Dowda from Coastal Horizons’ Rape Crisis Center, Robby McGee, the dean of students and Title IX coordinator at Cape Fear Community College, and Amber Resetar, director of Title IX compliance at UNCW.
(Author’s note: Resetar joined Emily Turner, supervisor of Coastal Horizon’s Rape Crisis Center, in a Title IX education program for NHCS administrators in 2017, motivated at least in part by the Sarah Johnson incident included in SCEPUL’s report.)
Beaulieu and Estep said they hope to a voice for students on the committee in the future.
“I think that we’ll probably get a student, or at least a few former students,” Estep said.
Beaulieu added that, ideally, multiple current or former student would be on the committee.
“Title IX is so big, do we want a student who through the sexual assault piece — there’s a bullying piece, there’s a transgender piece,” Beaulieu said.
Estep agreed, “I think you need all of those perspectives, because there’s so many of them.”
Lack of information and education
For Estep, the lack of information started with the school’s websites, which she said, “have been a thorn in my side since I started on the board six years ago.”
The current websites don’t list Title IX information or the school’s policy on it and are, in general, a haphazard affair. Estep said one of the first things the committee will do is have the websites overhauled using a standard template, so that each school’s homepage will have prominently displayed links to Title IX info.
The committee will also ramp up in-house educational efforts.
Beaulieu noted that the school currently uses “just a few slides” to educate administration and faculty on Title IX. Both Beaulieu and Estep agreed, that was far from sufficient to cover the complexity and importance of Title IX.
In addition to improving the depth of coverage, the committee wants to increase scope.
“What we need to do is open this up as much as we can, to teachers, to students, to everyone – it’s not just about athletes,” Estep said. “It’s not just what coaches are saying to their players. It’s a mindset. To me, it’s an overall philosophy. We have to get it on our websites, we have to get it in front of our principals.’
Estep said that would mean scaling education efforts for different classrooms, from elementary school through high school, which may mean some delicate, but necessary, conversations with young students.
“It’s not just high school. I was talking to a principal in an elementary school and we were talking about how to make that information conformable to that level,” Estep said.
Neither Estep or Beaulieu think a one-shot crash course will do the job, either.
“I don’t think it’s a one-time thing. You never absorb things the first time around – there’s got to be a clear reference for students to back to, there’s got to be really clear paths to information,” Estep said.
Clarifying the school’s policy
One of the first things Beaulieu did as a new board member was try to find New Hanover County Schools’ policy on Title IX. As a military police officer, Beaulieu was a coordinator for the Army’s SHARP program (essentially the Army’s version of Title IX), and hoped to find comparable information but, aside from a disclaimer at the bottom of school webpages – directing anyone wanted to file a complaint to contact Holliday – he didn’t find much.
One of the committee’s priorities is to set out a “firm” policy on how the schools handle complaints, something Beaulieu said people could expect to see within two months.
Beaulieu said there would be a “district-wide umbrella policy” as well as specific guidelines for each school, laying out who would be responsible for handling, investigating, and reporting Title IX complaints.
Full-time Title IX director?
Given the complexity of – and constant updates to – Title IX, is it too much for a part-time job?
For comparison, UNCW has about 10,000 fewer students and a full-time director of Title IX compliance. At New Hanover County Schools, that job belongs to Holliday, who also has administrative duties as deputy superintendent.
Both Beaulieu and Estep said it was something to consider, although it was early in the committee’s process.
“I can’t answer now – but again, as we look at what we are doing, we can answer, ‘should this be part of someone’s job description, or should this be all of someone’s job description,’” Estep said.
“I imagine that it’s something we’d explore. I don’t think anything is off the table,” Beaulieu said, adding that he believed there was a mandate for a full-time position to show the schools took Title IX seriously.
For Beaulieu, the committee’s long-term goals should be a system that’s built to last and adapt to changes.
“Title IX changes all the time. So a long term goal for me would be a long-term plan for how to deal with these changes. So do we have a permanent full-time investigator or coordinator that always deals with these changes? Who’s only job is Title IX in elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools,” Beaulieu said.
Estep said that this decision would have to be weighed against budget concerns.
“Do we have a title IX coordinator versus do we have two more TAs, three more TAs, you always have to weight those — that’s always the issue, what do you go for. So you have to look at all those different scenarios. Can we hire out the investigator? We need to ask those questions,” Estep said.
Estep also said that “internal buy-in from the system” – convincing staff of the importance of Title IX and “changing the mindset” where necessary – was an important goal of the committee.
Estep said the new Title IX committee would not have been possible under old board where, despite being all-Republican, there was a lack of communication.
“This committee never would have gotten off the ground with our old board,” Estep said, adding she was glad the board had new “energized” members.
Beaulieu said that, despite recent coverage in the press, there were not political divisions in the committee, or the board.
The Title IX committee will have its first official meeting on Thursday, March 7, at 2:30 p.m. in the Board of Education center at 1805 S. 15th St.
During the meeting the committee will decide how often it will meet, Estep said, adding it would be at least monthly.
If you or someone you know is in crisis due to sexual assault or abuse, call (910) 392-7460 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to speak with a counselor. Information about the Rape Crisis Center is available here. There are several resources covering Title IX protection for the victims of sexual harassment, including Title IX For Survivors and Know Your IX.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.