NEW HANOVER COUNTY – Just over a year ago, New Hanover County Schools launched Ethix 360, an online portal that allows anyone to anonymously report bullying, harassment, discrimination or other concerns.
The district had been searching for a more thorough way to report and record such complaints. Previously, it had done so in writing, which was difficult to track, according to Kristin Jackson, NHCS director of student support services.
Through Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, NHCS learned of Ethix 360, the private company that offers the service for schools and other organizations and businesses.
Two months after it launched, the need for such a system was reinforced when for the third time in two years, a district employee was arrested on sexual misconduct-related charges. The State Bureau of Investigation is currently investigating New Hanover County Schools for its failure to act on knowledge of the abuse.
Initially seen as a way for bullying to be reported, Ethix 360 has since evolved into a communication avenue for any questions or concerns the public has, from broken lights in parking lots to buses running late. It streamlines the process of finding an admin who can best answer a question.
Today NHCS is responding to reports on a range of subjects and is using Ethix 360 to document all incidents, even those that aren’t originally reported through the system.
‘An ear to the ground’
Individuals can submit an Ethix 360 report any time of the day from any place, with or without sharing their name and contact information. When a report is received, the third-party company, based in Charlotte, reviews and categorizes the submission. It is then sent to the initial contact for the school system, Title IX Coordinator Jarelle Lewis.
Title IX is a federal law requiring schools to meet obligations when responding to gender discrimination and sexual violence involving students.
“I see all the reports for the district whether it’s ‘my bus is late’ all the way up to ‘I’ve been impacted by some type of sexual misconduct incident,’” Lewis said.
The types and amount of reports vary but often depend on current events both in the local community and across the world. For example, during election season, concerns related to politics came through the portal, such as employees espousing their views on social media.
“It lets us have an ear to the ground essentially, from individuals just wanting to voice their opinion about the coronavirus response to the most severe type of reports,” Lewis said.
A large number of submissions related to Covid-19 came in at the start of the pandemic. Over time those have turned into parents sharing opinions on the reopening of schools or asking questions about how the virus cases are tracked.
“I think I’ve made a lot of good connections and made parents feel more comfortable that we’re on the fence about their kids going back to school,” Jackson said in an interview on Jan. 12, the day before the decision was made to postpone the full reopening of elementary schools.
Jackson added that she appreciates when people share their name on the report so the district can contact them. Ethix 360 gives reporters the option of anonymity but warns it could hinder NHCS’ ability to fully evaluate their concern. Users who stay private are asked to continue checking the status of their case on the site for any follow-up questions from the admin.
Lewis checks the reports throughout the day as they come in via email. If a report is not Title IX related, he refers to a central office “flow chart” and passes it onto the appropriate division, such as human resources or student support services. The issue is typically resolved following the district’s policy handbook or at the supervisor’s discretion.
NHCS also utilizes Say Something, a 24/7 app run through the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise. Say Something allows for anonymous, real-time interaction between users and representatives at its Florida call center.
“On that site, we get a lot more of things that are immediate,” Jackson said. For example, a student whose friend is sharing suicidal thoughts or committing self harm may ask for help through Say Something.
Five NHCS administrators are on call through the night, and able to connect with Say Something and the 911 Center in the event of an emergency.
NHCS saw its greatest reporting period after the immediate launch of Say Something, about a month before Ethix 360. The district received a large number of submissions in response to training it conducted in the schools. Some of the incidents were from years back.
Since then bullying reports have declined, likely because students are learning from home the majority of the time. Although they’re still seeing cyberbullying reported through Say Something, Jackson said it has not increased as a result of virtual learning.
Some of the reports that go through Say Something, such as bullying, are logged into Ethix 360 for the district to keep on file.
You submit a report. What’s next?
Breaking down how the district would respond to a bullying report, Jackson explained the first step is to ensure it’s in Ethix 360. When bullying is reported within the school, the student is still asked to enter it in the portal. Younger grades would do so with the help of a counselor.
“That way we are aware of every instance of an accusation of bullying,” Jackson said.
After the central office reviews the submission, it reassigns it to the school for an investigation, which includes questioning the impacted student, the accused and witnesses. Information from those statements is documented within Ethix 360. At that point, a decision is made about whether to label the incident as bullying and which consequences should follow.
Once the bullying investigation is finalized at the school level, it’s reviewed by Dr. Sherry Pinto, dropout prevention supervisor. Pinto ensures no information is missing from the Ethix 360 report and reviews the outcome.
If a student moves schools within the district, their bullying history remains in the system.
“If they’ve gone to middle school but they had some bullying reports in elementary, we can see that that child is continuing that behavior,” Jackson said.
Reporting sexual abuse
In response to NHCS’ mishandling of sexual abuse allegations coming to light in recent years, Lewis was hired in August 2019 to lead the Title IX division and a newly-formed committee. He explained how the district should follow up on a sexual misconduct report when one comes through on Ethix 360.
Early into the process, the Title IX investigator, a new position in NHCS as of November, reaches out to the impacted student and directs them to supportive services. They’re then offered the option to file a complaint, which is different from a report.
While a report puts the school system “on notice” of a sexual misconduct allegation, a complaint is when a student or employee has formally asked for an investigation and resolution of an incident.
Through the investigation, the central office would determine whether the alleged event meets the Title IX definition of sexual harassment. If it does, a discipline or remedy is pursued. If it does not, the report is kicked back down to human resources or the school level where the admin refers to the NHCS policies to identify the solution or response.
The district logs any sexual harassment case into Ethix 360. The Title IX coordinator is required to keep sexual harassment reports and formal complaints for at least seven years.
But Lewis stressed Ethix 360 is just one way to report.
Most times elementary schoolers would turn to a trusted adult, Lewis said. Older students and employees tend to favor Ethix 360, though. From a Title IX perspective, both are considered reports, putting the district “on notice.”
Lewis believes the recently established Title IX office, formed in response to the sexual abuse cases, is now in a “really good place,” with a full-time investigator recently coming on board – a unique position to fill at the K-12 level – and an administrative assistant overseeing daily routine tasks.
Now it just needs to make itself known. The department is in the midst of an awareness push with the communications office to educate the community on its work, but the pandemic has made it increasingly difficult to reach students.
“We’re just really trying to get the word out,” Lewis said, “to let students know that we exist and where they can go to when they need help in these particular areas related to Title IX.”
Discussions are underway about sharing Ethix 360 statistics with the public, according to the NHCS communication and outreach office. At this time, there is not a set timeline for release.
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