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Expert says school sex assault investigations need more transparency

school students
Posted at 10:09 PM, Jan 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-26 23:25:54-05

TAMPA, Fla — According to the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE), more than 400 instances of sexual battery, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and other sexual offenses were reported in six bay area school districts last school year.

They're numbers, that includes students from elementary school.

Sesir2021a h by ABC Action News on Scribd

"The reality is that it's happening at our k-12 schools," said Theresa Prichard, Esq.

Prichard is a lawyer and a leader with the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence.

The nonprofit provides training and programs to groups across the state. They also offer a variety of resources to survivors of all ages.

And when it comes to school-aged survivors, she tells ABC Action News that school districts need to beef up their policies and level of transparency, in how they handle reports of sexual violence.

She even spoke about it at a recent Hillsborough County school board meeting.

"I think schools across the state, looking at Florida, that we definitely need to better," she said.

We contacted school districts in Sarasota, Hillsborough, Polk, Pasco, Pinellas, and Hernando counties, to learn more about what their process was.

Here's what we asked:

We're looking to do a story about how sexual assault/sexual violence is handled within our local school districts. We wanted to understand what the process (who's involved, what documents are filled out, what happens after the report is made, etc) looks like once a student files a report with a staff member within their district.

Here are the answers we got:

  • Sarasota County Schools
  • Hillsborough County Schools
    • In general and not related to any specific case, when a student comes forward with allegations of a sexual assault, law enforcement is immediately involved. We then continue our own investigation while offering support with the top priority becoming student safety. We also go through the Title IX process.
  • Polk
    • Below is the School Board policy outlining investigations involving students (see italics):

      5540 - THE SCHOOLS AND INVESTIGATIONS INVOLVING STUDENTS

      The School Board recognizes that all employees and agents of the Board have an affirmative duty to cooperate with law enforcement agencies and the Department of Children and Family Services and comply with investigations relating to child abuse, abandonment, and neglect, or an alleged unlawful sexual offense involving a child. As provided herein, building administrators may also assist authorities in their investigations of other violations of law in which students are alleged to be involved.

      When State and Federal law enforcement authorities, including the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or officials from the Department of Children and Family Services arrive at the school and wish to interview a student or investigate an alleged violation of law, they must contact the building administrator indicating the nature of their investigation and expressing their desire to question a student or students. If the investigation involves child abuse, the official conducting the investigation will decide who can be present during the interview.

      Investigation of Child Abuse/Neglect Under the Child Protection Act by a Public Children’s Service Agency

      Every employee and agent of the Board who, in connection with his/her position, knows or suspects child abuse, abandonment, or neglect must immediately report that knowledge or suspicion online at https://www.dcf.state.fl.us/service-programs/abuse-hotline/report-online.shtml [dcf.state.fl.us] or by calling the abuse hotline at 1-800-962-2873, or TDD (Telephone Device for the Deaf): 1-800-453-5145. If the situation constitutes an emergency, the employee should call 911 first and then call the abuse hotline number. (also see Board Policy 8462)

      An official of the Department of Children and Family Services or law enforcement agency on its behalf may interview a student on school property during school hours in order to investigate a claim of child abuse/neglect involving such student or a member of the student's family. If neither the student nor a member of his/her family is the subject of the child abuse/neglect investigation, such agency shall be encouraged to contact the student during non-school hours and investigate the matter off school property, if at all possible.

      The building administrator shall attempt to contact the parent prior to questioning unless directed not to do so by the investigator. The building administrator must not attempt to contact the parent without first advising the investigator of his/her intent to do so.

      The building administrator or designated guidance counselor shall request to remain in the room during questioning of the student.

      However, it is up to the investigator whether to allow a school staff member who is known by the child to be present during the initial interview and will only make such allowance if:

      1. the investigator believes that the school staff member could enhance the success of the interview by his/her presence; and 
      2. the child requests or consents to the presence of the school staff member at the interview.

      Investigations of Violations of Law by Law Enforcement Agencies

      State and Federal law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), investigating complaints other than under the Child Protection Act should contact a student during non- school hours and investigate alleged violations of the law off school property if at all possible. An investigation can take place immediately on school property during school hours at the request of the building administrator if the alleged violation of law took place on school property, involves other situations affecting school safety or in emergency situations.

      If a student is to be questioned as a witness or victim in an alleged violation of law, the building administrator shall remain in the room during the questioning unless compelling reasons for exclusion are provided by the law enforcement agency. Although in such circumstances, the principal is lawfully acting in loco parentis, the parent should be informed.

      Before the student(s) is (are) questioned as a suspect in an alleged violation of the law, the building administrator shall attempt to contact the parent prior to questioning and shall remain in the room during the questioning unless compelling reasons for exclusion are provided by the law enforcement agency. In the event prior contact was not successful, the parent shall be notified subsequent to the questioning.

      Notification and Release of Records

      Attempts to notify the parents regarding investigations of child abuse/neglect and other law enforcement investigations shall be documented.

      No school official may release personally identifiable student information in education records to the police or the Department of Children and Family Services without prior written permission of the parent, a lawfully issued subpoena, a court order, or a health or safety emergency (see Board Policy 8330).

      When an authorized law enforcement officer or the Department of Children and Family Services removes a student, the building administrator shall also notify the parent(s) and the Superintendent before the student is removed or as soon after removal as possible.

  • Pasco
  • Pinellas
    • These cases are referred to the appropriate law enforcement agency or the sheriff’s office.
  • Hernando
    • The school district handles any report of sexual assault or sexual violence against a student or staff member as a criminal act and turns the matter over to law enforcement and any appropriate agencies, such as DCF, immediately.

In sum, Hernando and Pinellas county schools told us that they immediately turn these cases over to law enforcement or the "appropriate agency."

Hillsborough County Public schools say they do that too, but they and the other districts also, say they go through the "Title IX" process, which includes an internal investigation by an appointed "Title IX officer."

However, Prichard says the problem with that policy is that there is often only one of those "officers" per school and sometimes one person can be the Title IX officer for multiple schools.

She adds that this can become a stumbling block if students aren't comfortable talking to that person.

"Just thinking from a student perspective, they're likely to reach out to somebody who they trust. So if they have a good relationship with someone at that school, we just don't know who that is going to be," she said.

In addition to expanding on who can be involved in the process, she recommends that districts emphasize trauma-informed training for all employees, to help make kids more comfortable when reporting.

"You know, nobody wakes up one day knowing how to respond to someone telling you they've experienced sexual abuse or who's telling you they've experienced sexual violence," she said.