NEW HANOVER COUNTY – A subgroup of the New Hanover County Schools Title IX Committee has recommitted to producing a survey that gathers information specific to whether students are experiencing sexual harassment in schools, an issue strayed from in the most recent drafts of the questionnaire.
A year ago the Title IX Committee was working to draft a questionnaire to send out to middle and high schoolers as part of the district’s overall response to decades of covering up sexual assaults. However, plans to complete and release the survey were put on pause when the pandemic began.
In early January, during a board of education meeting, board member Judy Justice asked that work on the survey be considered again. When she and some Title IX committee members saw the latest versions of drafts, they noticed there was no mention of sexual assault. Instead, the questionnaire honed in on other issues, such as bullying.
“When I saw versions four and five, I really don’t know what happened; how we went from one kind of configuration of questions to something that was totally different,” Jackie White, a committee member and former UNC Greensboro professor, said in meeting Friday. “If I had a vote, I’d go back and say, ‘Let’s focus on the Title IX sexual harassment and bullying and be very specific about that.’ That’s what the community, I think, is most concerned about.”
Friday afternoon the subcommittee met to resume work on the survey for the first time in months. Board members Stephanie Walker and Stephanie Kraybill are recent appointees to the committee.
The largest task at hand was to reassess what the purpose of the survey is. Title IX Coordinator Jarelle Lewis told the subcommittee that up until now the questionnaire has only been referred to as the “Title IX survey.” Yet, it evolved into a survey that was not about Title IX matters, such as sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.
He said if the survey is going to address incidents outside of sexual misconduct and gender discrimination, it should go by a different name.
“I believe with the fourth and fifth versions, and maybe even the first through third, I think it’s a bit misleading in regards to the behaviors that it is addressing,” Lewis said.
The subcommittee agreed it would focus the survey on Title IX issues. Over the past month, some NHCS administrators and committee members have expressed hesitance about asking students to disclose experiences of sexual assault on a survey that’s supposed to be confidential. Per state statute, the district is required to report such incidents, but it can’t do so if it does not know the name of the complainant.
Friday, Lewis stated he is not concerned with the legality of the survey in his position.
“For me and our role as the Title IX committee, we’re not concerned with the litigation,” he said. “That’s for the board to decide.”
Lewis said he thinks the survey should initially go to high-school students. Although he said they could consider including middle-school students as well, he did not want to send the survey to elementary schools at this time.
Tanya Jordan, NHCS Supervisor of school counseling and social work, said she would prefer if students took the survey in person so there is support staff in the building if needed. Kraybill agreed, adding that giving the survey in classrooms would ensure students are answering the questions themselves.
Either way, Lewis said he does not want to promise students anonymity if they complete the survey, especially if it’s conducted online. Assistant Superintendent of student support services Julie Varnam said their assistant superintendent of technology said even a “very secure system” can be hacked.
“I mean, we’re going to aim for completely confidential and anonymous, and we are not going to be tracking,” Varnam said, “but we don’t want to give some kind of false sense of security that it’s absolutely untraceable.”
However, Lewis said, in the case a respondents’ identity is ever linked to their survey results, the district would promise privacy.
The next Title IX Committee meeting is Feb. 15. During the session, the subcommittee will report to the full committee on decisions made to the survey. There will be subsequent meetings to discuss the drafting of the questions, and whether it will address bystanders and perpetrators, and what the district will do with the results.
Once the survey is complete, the Title IX Committee will recommend it to the NHC Board of Education for approval.
“This is not just a one-off thing,” Lewis said. “This is something that we want to do annually, or every two years, or something like that to be able to see the growth over the course of time.”
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