Saturday, October 1, 2022

‘Over-the-clothes’ fondling: NHCS policy committee assesses Title IX definitions, returns decision to board

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The board has received questions and comments on why the definition does not include over-the-clothes touching. (PCD).

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Board of Education is reviewing its Title IX policy for the second time in two months. This time a change could have large repercussions on the time and manner administrators handle misbehavior.

The policy committee includes board members Stephanie Kraybill, Pete Wildeboer and Nelson Beaulieu, who met Tuesday to discuss the district’s Title IX definitions. Specifically, they were reviewing the outline of “fondling” as a form of sexual assault. 

READ MORE: Formal or informal complaint? NHCS considers range of accountability options in Title IX amendment

Its current definition: “Fondling is the touching, underneath the clothing, of a person’s genitalia, anus, buttocks, or breasts without the consent of the victim for purposes of sexual gratification.” 

The board has received questions and comments on why the definition does not include over-the-clothes touching. 

At the Sept. 6 school board meeting, Natosha Tew, founder of the Moms for Liberty New Hanover County chapter, raised concerns about “underneath the clothing” specification. 

“Sexual assault can occur with the clothes on, over the clothes, and I think that should be included in the definitions,” Tew said. 

Title IX Coordinator Jarelle Lewis clarified the background of the policy and the effects on amending it at the Sept. 14 committee meeting.

He explained once the Title IX office receives a report of fondling, they initiate an intake process. It includes determining if the complaint is a Title IX offense. If not, the issue is returned to the jurisdiction of the school where the complaint originated. 

The Title IX process has precise guidelines per federal mandate. Once the Title IX office handles a case, a formal complaint can be filed, initiating an informal or formal resolution process. The latter involves an investigation and witness-gathering process to reach a verdict on wrongdoing and can take up to 120 days to reach resolution.

If the board amends its policy definition to include over-the-clothing fondling reports, staff would be required to follow the same process. According to Lewis, the move would increase the amount of occurrences that must be handled by trained Title IX staff; it currently includes Lewis and one other investigator.

“We would not be able to resolve all those cases from the central office,” Lewis said. “That would require me to pass that work onto the school level to perform those types of investigations.” 

He explained school administrators are only trained to know when and how to report potential Title IX cases. They do not make decisions on whether a case should enter the Title IX office, nor can they administer a formal complaint or resolution process. 

Committee chair Beaulieu raised a question to Lewis on an amended definition’s broadness. 

“It seems, based on what I’m hearing from you, that things that occur on an almost hourly basis in our elementary schools — wedgies, all things that we know little kids do that are serious but are dealt with — would become Title IX issues,” he said. 

Lewis said a major part of his Title IX’s office’s job is sifting through reports and having conversations with administrators to determine who will handle the case. 

“If the definition were to change, fondling would become the number one report that we have to resolve, by a landslide,” Lewis said. 

Beaulieu added that making a clothing amendment might deduct from Title IX’s intended use. 

The policy covers nonconsensual touching for sexual gratification; therefore, a physical fight between students, for example, would most likely not be resolved through Title IX, due to the lack of sexual motive. 

Former school board candidate Chris Sutton also took to the podium at the school board’s Sept. 6 meeting to denounce the current policy. 

“We have had issues where parents that are uneducated in the difference between sexual assault and sexual battery will come in and call it sexual assault and then be told ‘no, it’s not sexual assault,” Sutton said. “I would like for y’all to put in the definition of sexual battery, which is groping, which is over the clothes.”

During public comment, Tew also questioned how the policy was formed and what input from the community was received, citing NHCS’s history of dodging accountability for sexual abuse allegations. 

He explained that because Title IX is a civil rights policy, it is in place to ensure equal access to education; therefore, not every offense rises to the level of a Title IX policy. 

Other policies, he said, were in place to discipline inappropriate behavior that doesn’t fall under Title IX. Lewis listed NHCS’s Policy 4039 covering bullying and harassment, which also includes rules on unwelcome touching. 

Violations of those policies can be dealt with at the school level. That would result in incidents being resolved quicker than Title IX cases, where administrators cannot treat accused students as responsible until the very end of an investigation. 

Committee member Kraybill pointed out the benefits of quicker disciplinary actions as discussed at the North Carolina School Justice Partnership, a group of community stakeholders focus on keeping students in school and out of jail.

“If we can handle everything as close to the time of incident as possible, with the highest level of authority at that level, then we will get more bang for our buck, so to speak, on changing behaviors,” she said. 

However, excluding over-the-clothes conditions in the fondling definition will not prevent significant cases of offensive touching, no matter where it occurs, from the possibility of Title IX resolution, according to Lewis. If the conduct were so severe, pervasive and offensive that it prevented a student from learning, it qualifies under the policy already. 

The committee ultimately decided to return the Title IX definitions to the school board for approval, without amending current verbiage. The policy will be reviewed at the board’s Oct. 4. meeting. 


Reach out to Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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