NEW HANOVER COUNTY – Earlier this month, New Hanover County Schools Board of Education member Judy Justice raised concerns about the possible exclusion of sexual assault questions from a draft Title IX survey intended to go out to students.
Justice’s concern centered around the possibility that questions referencing sexual assault were pulled by a couple of board members on the district’s Title IX committee. In response, school board member Nelson Beaulieu described Justice’s complaint as “categorically false.”
Documents obtained by Port City Daily reveal the mention of sexual assault was included in earlier drafts of the long-planned Title IX survey. Despite the system’s history with sex crimes against students, the most recent drafts have no mention of sexual assault.
It’s not clear who pulled the questions. However, it is clear the debate over whether or not to include the question of if a student has experienced sexual assault presents a legal liability to the district, hence why it has been hesitant to invite such disclosures through the survey.
Now, the district is going back to the drawing board on the recently debated survey.
Revisiting the survey
About a year ago, the school system was working to create a Title IX survey to send out to middle and high schoolers. However, that effort was largely abandoned when the pandemic hit and took students out of classrooms.
During a virtual Title IX committee meeting Jan. 11, most committee members couldn’t recall how the draft presented to board members came to be, but it seemed the committee had lost sight of the survey’s intended purpose over the years. Plus, now that the district offers anonymous online reporting systems, it’s possible the goal of the survey may have changed.
NHCS assistant superintendent of support services Julie Varnam, who is part of the subgroup that penned draft surveys in 2019, recalled the survey originated as a questionnaire to determine whether students understood how to report incidents. She explained it evolved into a survey that would measure school climate and broader issues.
“From the early versions of the survey to the later versions of the survey, they’re really capturing completely different information,” Varnam said.
Port City Daily obtained drafts of Title IX surveys through a public records request. The first three drafts asked just five questions, including “Have you personally experienced harassment, discrimination, or bullying?” and “Do you know how to report incidents?” but did not explicitly mention sexual harassment.
By a second draft, the team had defined harassment at the beginning of the survey to include sexual harassment.
A third draft defines sexual harassment as its own term.
By the fourth and fifth drafts, the focus of the survey had entirely shifted to bullying and harassment, with no explicit questions regarding sexual abuse. The fourth version included a paragraph at the beginning of the survey that guaranteed confidentiality to respondents; however, that was removed from the fifth and most recent version.
The two latest drafts ask how often students have observed or participated in harassing and bullying other students. It also seeks to understand where these incidents are commonly taking place and how bystanders are typically responding.
At the Title IX meeting, administrators expressed concern about how the school district would respond if anonymous respondents shared sexual assault allegations.
“Essentially, you can’t promise any confidentiality or anonymity when it comes to dealing with minors in these incidences of sexual misconduct,” Jarelle Lewis, NHCS Title IX director, said. “That is something for the committee to be aware of. We will have to respond in some way with law enforcement particularly, and following our Title IX policies and procedures.”
Lewis explained in the case of an anonymous survey, the district would still be on notice if a criminal incident was disclosed, but its response would be limited due to the lack of information. The district may have to react in other ways.
As an example, Lewis said administrators once hosted a day’s worth of assemblies at Roland-Grise Middle School in response to a particular incident.
“That’s an example of a response that’s appropriate but isn’t necessarily individualized, but it’s impacting the whole entire community,” Lewis said.
Students may also submit anonymous complaints through the Say Something system, which includes an app and website, or the online reporting system Ethix360. Through both methods, users are untraceable.
“When these survey discussions first began, we did not have Ethix360. It didn’t exist. Neither did See Something Say Something,” Lewis said. “I think maybe that’s where part of the discussion about anonymous came from, but now we do have those tools within the district for individuals to report.”
Still, Lewis did not say explicitly whether he was supportive or opposed to including questions about sexual assault. He said it would depend on the goal of the survey.
“I think there’s more discussion and more background work for the committee to do,” Lewis said.
A subgroup of the Title IX committee is meeting in the next month to rework the drafted survey. The subcommittee will present to the full committee on Feb. 15.
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