NEW HANOVER COUNTY — School board members voted unanimously to amend the district’s Title IX policy for inclusion of an “informal” complaint process at Tuesday night’s meeting.
The federal law banning sex discrimination in schools outlines a reporting, formal complaint and grievance process for sexual assault violations in educational settings. The school’s policy mandates that Title IX reports must be resolved through formal investigation, which includes gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses and potentially holding a hearing.
Under the new language, Title IX victims can choose an accountability method more attuned to their comfort level and healing process. Informal routes can also provide a quicker path to closure than the formal process.
“Instead of an ongoing situation that takes months after months after months, this is a situation that can be taken care of a little bit quicker,” board member Pete Wildeboer said in the meeting.
NHCS Title IX Coordinator Jarelle Lewis clarified that formal investigations can take up to 120 days.
“Some of these can be pretty lengthy depending on how many witnesses we have, if there are students with disabilities, students and families that don’t speak English as their first language,” Lewis said.
The informal process is included in the North Carolina School Boards Association policy, which the board adopted in October 2020 without inclusion of the informal process.
Board chair Stephanie Kraybill told PCD on Monday the district needed to train staff on it before implementation.
“We are including it now as it will allow us to handle more complaints in a timely manner,” Kraybill said on Monday.
Board member Judy Justice was hesitant to vote on the policy changes without understanding the specific procedure.
“I do not want to have the public in any way, shape or form question what we’re doing,” Justice said during the meeting. “I would like to see what the process is so we can approve that because of our history and what we have been through.”
In 2015, the school district was in trouble with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for allegedly failing to provide a “prompt and equitable” response to a female student who was assaulted off-campus by a male peer.
Lewis explained each case starts with a formal complaint and parties can choose to enter into an informal agreement. He added that parents would be notified and involved as soon as a formal complaint was received.
“Parties will be presented with their rights under the informal resolution process, such as voluntary or written consent, before it’s been entered by all parties involved,” Lewis said.
Instead of an investigation, mediation or restorative justice tactics could be used to provide closure for affected parties. While example options were not discussed during the meeting, potential possibilities include an apology, intermediated discourse, mutual acceptance of a no-contact order, academic adjustments and participation in educational programs.
Both the victim and violator must agree to enter an informal process and abide by its agreement. Either person may exit the informal route in favor of the formal one at any time before the case is resolved.
While this approach can be used for student-on-student violations or employee-on-employee cases, an informal route cannot be used in employee-on-student cases.
Former school board candidate Chris Sutton spoke out against the amendments during the public comment period, citing the schools board’s Title IX track record.
“There needs to be a paper trail; there needs to be accountability,” he said. “There needs to be no gray area.”
As the Title IX coordinator, Lewis told the board he will oversee an informal process just like a formal one to make sure all mandates are being followed.
The amendment takes effect immediately, right in time for the upcoming traditional school year.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org