Wednesday, April 17, 2024

NHCS board revisits Title IX survey, debates inclusion of sexual assault question

The Title IX Committee meets Monday to discuss the status of the Title IX school climate survey. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY – New Hanover County Schools is revisiting a draft of the Title IX school climate survey that never went out to students and fails to ask any questions related to sexual assault, despite the system’s long history with sex crimes against students.

Board member Judy Justice brought the issue to light Tuesday night during the board of education meeting. She told Port City Daily she intentionally requested the item be added to the agenda now because there are newly seated board members to help move the questionnaire forward.

Related: Deep Dive: A long hard look at New Hanover County Schools’ arrests, allegations, and administration [Free read] 

The Title IX survey was originally presented to the school board in early 2020, with the intention to send it out to middle and high school students. NHCS Title IX Executive Director Jarelle Lewis told the board Tuesday the climate survey was modeled off another school district’s.

However, the plan was never carried out after Covid-19 closed schools in March.

The survey would have asked questions such as “How often have you observed harassing, bullying, name-calling or making fun of students at your school?” Answers would have helped track incident rates year-by-year and provide a clear picture of whether the events are recurring or declining over time. Administrators would also get a better understanding of the current climate within school buildings.

No mention of sexual assault

The draft survey asks questions about the frequency of bullying and harassment, but it contains no mention of sexual assault.

After Tuesday’s meeting, Justice said on a phone call she didn’t believe the old board members would have supported sending out the survey. Thus she didn’t realize until recently there were no questions concerning sexual assault.

“I wasn’t delving into it that much [a year ago] because, honestly, I knew it wouldn’t be allowed to even come to a vote because of the leadership at the time,” Justice said.

Jackie White, an expert on Title IX matters who serves on the NHCS committee, told Port City Daily she would recommend the district include questions about sexual assault.

“As a researcher, I would argue very strongly that if we left that question out, we would be failing the students,” White said.

A retired UNC Greensboro professor, White conducted multiple decades of research on dating violence and sexual assault among teens and young adults. She explained to board members that survivors of gender-based violence would most likely turn to the coaches, teachers, administrators for support. When NHCS fails to act on behalf of the victim, it can commit “institutional betrayal.”

Last year, NHCS admitted it failed to adequately and promptly handle a student’s sexual assault complaint after top administrators repeatedly denied wrongdoing in the matter, according to WHQR. In the 2015 incident, administrators declined to enforce a court’s restraining order, did not prevent a student sexual assault victim from coming in contact with her assailant and suggested that she switch schools. 

White said leaving out explicit questions about sexual assault would send a message to survivors that the district does not care about their experiences. She also said vague questions fail to provide the district with sufficient information to develop effective prevention and intervention programs.

“You can’t help somebody if you don’t know what actually happened to them,” White said.

A virtual survey

Another pressing question Tuesday night was whether the survey should be conducted, even though students are not in school buildings full time.

Justice thought the reason why people wanted to distribute the survey only with respondents present in the building was in case they are “triggered.” However, Nelson Beaulieu, a board representative on the Title IX committee, said the concern with issuing remote surveys was the “integrity of the results.”

“We just felt like if it’s a climate survey, A) we don’t have a climate with students not in the building, and B) we wanted to make sure the results that we were getting were accurate,” Beaulieu said during the meeting.

Either way, White said decades of research on online surveys related to sensitive subjects largely indicate that people are often more grateful to share their experiences in a safe space than triggered. She suggested an online survey should still provide respondents with a hotline telephone number in case they’re in need of support.

The other version

At the meeting, Justice asked that the school board receive another earlier version of the survey. She believes questions about sexual assault were “pulled.”

Lewis confirmed during the meeting there is another draft with “some different questions” that never made it past the committee.

An NHCS spokesperson said the Title IX director was not available to comment on the matter by press time. Its chief communications officer, Ann Gibson, also did not explicitly answer whether sexual assault was ever highlighted in the survey. Rather, Gibson said the subject would be discussed at the Monday Title IX committee meeting.

Regardless, the board of education is directed to only vote on what the committee brings forth.

During the meeting, board attorney Deborah Stagner explained committees are designed to do work for the board and make recommendations for action. The recommended action should either be rejected, approved or the board can make additional requests of the committee, Stagner said.

“I am very concerned,” Justice said in response. “I have been concerned since I heard that there were some questions pulled — not by the entire committee but by a couple of board members that were on the committee — that directly relate to sexual assault.”

Beaulieu denied this accusation.

“That is not true. That is categorically false, ma’am,” Beaulieu responded. “You cannot have an anonymous survey asking questions about sexual assault because we are a reporting body. If a child said, ‘Yes, I have been sexually assaulted. This is my anonymous survey’ – what would we do?”

N.C. Gen Stat. § 115C-288(g) mandates school principals to immediately report to law enforcement when they have personal knowledge or received notice of an act invovling sexual assault has occurred on school property. In 2019, the legislature strengthened sexual assault reporting rules by imposing a new penalty for adults who fail to report violent or sexual acts committed against minors. It’s a Class 1 misdemeanor if an adult who “knows or should have reasonably known” fails to report to law enforcement a sexual assault against a minor.

White explained responses in research surveys cannot serve as evidence in a court of law, even if someone admitted to a criminal act. Plus, if the survey is anonymous, there should be no way to identify the student.

Asked by Port City Daily if he had a stance on whether sexual assault should be included, Beaulieu said he was “absolutely willing” to discuss it with the entire committee and director Lewis.

“Jarelle Lewis is an expert in Title IX. Judy Justice is not,” he said. “So I would like to hear what our experts in this field have to say.”

The Title IX Committee meets Monday, Jan. 11, at 3 p.m. to discuss the status of the survey as well as athletic compliance and the committee’s work moving forward.

Attendance is limited to 25 audience members. The public can watch online live on NHCS’ YouTube channel.

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at or on Twitter @alexsands_

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