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Back Of The Class is a 5-part Youth Radio investigation into K-12 school discipline in the age of #MeToo.
Sam McNair learned that there’s a fine line between hugging and unwanted touching when he crossed it. He had always been a hugger.
“He hugged the coaches. He hugged his teammates. He just hugged people,” said Sam’s high school football coach, Dorian Rogers. “He never did it as a sexual gesture. He just did it out of friendliness.”
In 2013, when Sam was 17 and a senior at Duluth High School in Gwinnett County, Georgia, he hugged a teacher.
I have seen footage of the hug in question. It took place in a student lounge, cordoned off from the school cafeteria (a cafeteria I know well, since like Sam, I also attended Duluth High). The school security camera captured Sam wrapping his arms around the teacher. She pushed him back. He let go and walked away. The exchange lasted a matter of seconds.
When the teacher reported the incident as sexual harassment to the school, she said she had previously warned Sam not to hug her. Sam denies that he was ever cautioned. The teacher did not respond to requests for an interview.
The punishment for Sam’s actions had serious and enduring effects. After the hug, the district placed him on out-of-school suspension. At a subsequent panel hearing, Sam was suspended for an entire calendar year and barred from setting foot on any school property.
In the years since Sam was disciplined for sexual harassment, the federal government has stepped up its oversight on campus sexual assault and harassment, in colleges and K-12 schools. Office of Civil Rights (OCR) data shows that elementary, middle, and high school districts across the country are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for possible mishandling of sexual violence complaints. Overall, these federal investigations are up more than 500 percent since 2014. Gwinnett County Public Schools, Sam’s school district, appears on the list among those with the highest number of active Title IX investigations for sexual violence–three in total.
Gwinnett stands out in statewide data as well, with 1,087 students disciplined for sexual misconduct in 2016-2017. In contrast, Georgia’s second-largest school district, Cobb County, disciplined 304 students for sexual misconduct in the same year. Even accounting for the differences in the size of the student population, Gwinnett disciplined students for sexual misconduct at more than double Cobb’s rate.
For comment on student discipline rates and other questions, Youth Radio attempted to reach out to several district officials and were repeatedly redirected to the Department of Communications and Media Relations. When asked about the district’s discipline rate, Director of Community Relations Bernard Watson wrote by email that Gwinnett’s definition of sexual misconduct includes “a broad range” of behaviors including “possession of pornographic materials, kissing or any act of intimacy.”
In other words, the list of offenses coded as “sexual misconduct” varies from one school district to another. So Gwinnett’s high student discipline numbers do not necessarily mean there are more such incidents within the district. Rather, within Gwinnett, a student kissing in the hallway may get punished for “sexual misconduct,” as could students with porn on their phones.
Sam’s mother April, a single parent who works in advertising, appealed the school’s decision to suspend her son for a year after he hugged his teacher, and Sam was eventually allowed to finish up his high school education with online classes. “Duluth High School” appeared on Sam’s diploma. But Sam lost a second appeal for sexual harassment to be removed from his school record. And he was barred from school property, so for prom and graduation he went to friends’ houses to take pictures of his former classmates in their tuxedos and gowns.
“He could have gotten a free athletic scholarship to college, four years,” Coach Rogers said of Sam. Rogers also graduated from Duluth and played football there and at Georgia Tech. He recalls scouts from Kennesaw State University who had their eyes on Sam.
Disgusted over the situation, in 2014 Coach Rogers resigned from his position, which he’d held for over a decade. “If they couldn’t defend him, then I didn’t want to be at the school,” Rogers said. “It seemed like they had no care or concern for his future.”
“I cried a lot, I’m not going to lie,” Sam told me when we met up earlier this year, at a Starbucks five miles from Duluth High. He had just finished his shift at the Verizon store.
Sam credits his relationship to God for getting him through this period in his life. “Everything happens for a reason,” he said.
After spending a year at a private Christian college, Sam could no longer afford the tuition. So he moved back in with his mom and says he spent another year taking classes at a technical college. He is currently working, not enrolled in class, just a few semesters short of graduating.
Still, Sam can’t shake the effects of his school system seeing him “as a statistic, not so much a person. They want to exude a certain type of power, to keep their name clean,” he said.
Even now, five years later, Sam knows a sexual harassment charge on your record never goes away. “That always follows you.”
I HADN’T INTENDED to report on students accused of sexual harassment. The opposite, in fact. As a producer at Youth Radio, I spent the better part of 2017 working on a story with teen reporter Charlie Stuip, 16, who was in high school herself, on the experiences of student victims of sexual misconduct.
The debate around campus sexual assault has centered on universities. However, K-12 schools are also responsible for responding to sexual harassment and assault allegations, because Title IX is a broad anti-discrimination law that applies to all educational institutions receiving federal funding. School districts are often ill-prepared to carry out the responsibilities that come with Title IX, which include assigning coordinators to every school, thoroughly investigating complaints, and restoring a safe and equitable learning environment in the aftermath of sexual misconduct. All this, with little training and no additional federal dollars for Title IX-compliance.
In 2014, a girl I’ll call T.M. was a sophomore at Peachtree Ridge High School, not far from Duluth, when she says she was coerced into performing oral sex in an empty classroom by a boy her own age. She reported it the very next day to her first period teacher.
According to T.M., her school’s response was as traumatizing as the sexual assault. She reported that the school resource officer asked her questions like, “‘Why didn’t you bite his penis and squeeze his balls? What were you wearing? Did you scream?’” and that during the school’s investigation, she was made to reenact her assault. Eventually, the school district decided that there was not enough evidence to show that she did not consent to oral sex, and both she and her accused were suspended for nine days for having sex on campus. In the aftermath of the experience, T.M. suffered anxiety, depression, and PTSD. She expressed thoughts of killing herself.
T.M.’s case is one of the pending federal investigations into Gwinnett County. Her complaint also raises the issue of race as a contributing factor in the school’s findings. T.M. is biracial (black and Asian), and the boy she says assaulted her is white.
When asked for comment on the federal investigations, Gwinnett’s superintendent of 22 years, J. Alvin Wilbanks, responded via email, “You noted correctly that the cases are investigating ‘possible mishandling of sexual violence claims.’ We believe these cases were handled appropriately.”
Youth Radio reported on T.M in 2017. As part of our story, T.M. prepared a statement in which she delivered a message to students and schools.
“My message is simple,” she wrote. “It is your job to keep students safe. When a student comes forward and reports an assault, school officials must step up, provide support and take the report seriously.”
NOT LONG AFTER our story on student victims of sexual violence aired, the #metoo movement hit, and suddenly the whole country was reckoning with the trauma and injustice of sexual harassment. For many of my female friends and me, #metoo gripped us with an almost physical force. During the day, we sat at our desks and watched the display of one disgraced man after another. At night, we met and recalled our own harassers. For a while there, practically every conversation circled back to sexual harassment.
I was struck by the commonalities in women’s experiences among my friends and in the news, and the teen girls I’d met through reporting on Title IX. But when it came to the alleged perpetrators in schools across the country, the situation didn’t match up in the same way.
There were cases in my reporting where boys who had power, privilege, and popularity assaulted girls who were then essentially blamed and shamed for the abuse. But child advocates I spoke to indicated that it’s not the Brock Turners of the world who would be targeted by intensified discipline with respect to sexual misconduct accusations. Instead, they pointed to boys of color whose families saw racial bias in the treatment of their sons, or boys in foster care, or boys with disabilities the school struggled to address.
In the McNair case, both Sam and the teacher he hugged are black. Sam’s mom, April, has insisted from the beginning that her fight was not against the teacher: “We have never once spoken negative of her, and we’re not going to speak negative of her.” April–who told me she is a survivor of sexual violence–was fighting a system that she saw targeting boys of color with forms of discipline, like suspension and expulsion, that threatened their right to education.
“The black kids, the Spanish kids, are really being treated like objects, instead of like people,” was how Coach Rogers, who is also black, described the disciplinary panels, which he says he regularly attended as a coach and team chaplain.
“They are being punished more harshly, when you go to the panels, in my experience,” Rogers told me.
U.S. Department of Education civil rights data show that black students are almost four times as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions, and almost twice as likely to be expelled as their white peers. Black students are also more than twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement as their white peers.
What about punishment for sexual harassment specifically? National demographic data on those accused are not systematically collected or analyzed by the Office of Civil Rights. “Unless the schools are required to collect the data, they have a very strong incentive to not collect the data,” Ben Trachtenberg, a law professor at the University of Missouri, told me. “If the data shows that 100 percent of the students suspended for sexual harassment are black or Hispanic, they could look at the data and sue. If the data doesn’t exist, then they can’t.”
However, the state of Georgia does dis-aggregate student data based on race, and their data shows a clear disparity with respect to punishment of black students for sexual misconduct.
Youth Radio found that in Gwinnett, a district that is 32 percent black, the students disciplined for sexual offenses are 51 percent black. White students, by contrast, make up 24 percent of the student population and 15 percent of those disciplined.
When pressed about concerns of racial bias in school discipline, Superintendent Wilbanks responded by email, “Student discipline for misbehavior of any nature is administrated according to our discipline code and because of the act of misbehavior and not gender, race, or ethnicity.”
BEYOND THE QUESTION of racial bias, another factor separates school-aged children accused of sexual misconduct from the high-profile abuses coming to light through #metoo. While both college attendance and powerful jobs are considered privileges, K-12 attendance is a right. In fact, it is an obligation for children under age 18 to be in school. So how do schools balance protecting the rights of the victim and the accused, in responding to charges of student sexual misconduct?
Atlanta Legal Aid attorney Craig Goodmark has been a part of several cases where adults have struggled with that question. When I interviewed Goodmark at his office, he turned his computer screen away from me so I couldn’t see the names of clients he’s represented in Gwinnett County schools.
He talked about one boy, 5 years old and in foster care at the time, who was suspended for “sexual misconduct” after slapping a girl on the butt while they were running around at recess.
“This was the creation of a teacher who was overzealous in her enforcement of these Title IX policies,” said Goodmark, adding that kindergartners aren’t old enough to have the “intention” to sexually harass someone else.
“Clearly the actions of two students in the playground where one slaps the other on the butt are not the types of actions that the code of conduct for sexual decency was created to address,” he said.
The effects of sexual misconduct accusations on young children can be staggering, starting with the stress of being accused of something that the child doesn’t understand. Add to that punishments of multi-day suspensions, which can set the child back academically and damage the child’s trust in the teacher and the school altogether. And then there is the stigma, within an elementary school community, of being accused of touching someone, being avoided by parents and classmates, being watched, treated as suspect.
“The deck is completely stacked against the kids coming in,” said Rachel Lazarus, a Gwinnett Legal Aid lawyer who works with Goodmark. She has represented several students facing suspension and expulsion panels.
According to Lazarus, most students arrive at the panel without a lawyer, because they cannot afford one, or they don’t realize that one would be helpful. A group of teachers and administrators hears evidence and then asks the student if he or she admits to violating a rule.
“If the kid won’t admit it, then in the punishment phase, they’re considered not to have taken responsibility. But if they do admit it, well, then they’ve admitted to doing it, and therefore need to be disciplined for it,” Lazarus told me.
None of this is hypothetical for Lazarus, she went on to tell me. When her own daughter was 5 years old and going to school in a nearby county outside Gwinnett, there was a boy in her class who would look up her skirt. “Constantly,” Lazarus said.
When ignoring the boy didn’t put a stop to it, the family eventually realized, “No, this was crossing the line. This was actually sexual harassment, even though they were both 5 years old,” Lazarus said.
But here’s where her experience diverged from so many in Gwinnett County. “It wasn’t adversarial because we understood that this was a little boy who didn’t fully understand why what he was doing was not okay,” Lazarus said. “My daughter needed it to stop. And she needed to see her teacher stop it, so that she knew that, you know, that the adults were protecting her.”
There was no suspension, no escalation to a hearing or attorney involvement, she said. The teacher met with both kids and told the boy he could not be near Lazarus’ daughter, and the two were never placed in the same class again.
Lazarus’ daughter is now 14 years old. “To this day, she won’t wear a skirt without pants underneath,” Lazarus said. “I don’t know if this is a direct effect, but she definitely doesn’t trust boys.
WHENEVER AND WHEREVER sexual misconduct happens between students, school administrators are obligated by Title IX to restore a safe and equal learning environment, for all the young people involved. Schools must protect the rights of both the accuser and the accused; show no bias in terms of race or gender; account for age and other developmental factors; contend with the impact of trauma; and work towards finding justice. But in practice, justice for victims often translates into ratcheting up punishment, even when students are years from becoming adults.
After hearing our radio story on K-12 sexual harassment, a Gwinnett County mom, T., wrote to Youth Radio to tell us about another case in the district, this one involving her son. He was the child accused. The incident happened last fall, in his middle school classroom, where he and his classmates had just finished a round of standardized testing.
The teacher put on a movie for her students. Gathered in a group in the back of a darkened classroom, three boys put their hands on a girl and made crude comments about her body. According to testimony in official documents, T.’s son touched her butt, grabbed her waist and pulled her onto his lap until she slid off. When she was on the ground, another boy attempted to spread her legs.
Neither the victim nor her family responded to Youth Radio’s requests for an interview, nor has she spoken publicly. To respect and protect her privacy, we are not revealing identifying details about her.
T.’s son said his touch was accidental–that the girl tripped into his lap and he pushed her off. But several witness statements, including one from the girl herself, contradicted his account. While all of this took place, the teacher was present in the classroom, but the witness statements do not show the teacher stepping in, or even noticing. It was a friend of the girl’s who first reported what happened to a school counselor.
T.’s son was immediately suspended, and after a school administrative hearing, he was told that he couldn’t return to his middle school for the duration of his eighth grade year. He was 13 years old.
The police officer stationed at the school noted “conflicting stories” among students’ witness reports and referred the case to the district attorney’s office, which then pressed sexual battery charges against T.’s son. (Of the three boys involved in the incident, one was let off, and another faced the same punishment as T.’s son.)
T. said that at a subsequent hearing–this one at Gwinnett County Juvenile Court–the charge on her son’s juvenile record was reduced from sexual battery to simple battery.
Some might call this case a #metoo victory, with so few girls and women willing to report sexual harassment and assault. But for parents like T., it can feel like another entrypoint into the school-to-prison pipeline.
In the case of T.’s son, the State Board of Education upheld the district’s decision, and T. filed an Office of Civil Rights complaint against Gwinnett County Public Schools for violating her son’s civil rights and showing racial bias–an allegation the district denies, pointing out that T.’s son, who is black, received the same punishment as a white boy who was also accused in this case. The outcome of the OCR investigation is pending.
After her son got in trouble, T. home-schooled him for a period and eventually enrolled him in a district almost 60 miles from Gwinnett, where she feared retaliation.
“The whole thing is traumatizing,” she said. As far as she is concerned, “His education was denied. Period.”
SO WHAT’S GOING on in Gwinnett County, and how representative is it of the way schools handle sexual harassment nationwide? Like a growing number of districts across the country, Gwinnett has blurred the boundary between the schools and the criminal justice system, through the heavy presence of campus security. The latest data on school resource officers shows that in 2015, 45 percent of schools had some sort of campus security, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, up from 2005, when there were school resource officers on only 26 percent of campuses. As campus shootings become a permanent part of the American landscape, schools continue to tighten their relationships with law enforcement.
In Gwinnett, the school resource officers stationed at the district’s middle and high schools are trained police officers, but of the 74 employed by the district, only five have completed specialized training on sexual assault cases. School resource officers are notified when there’s an accusation of student sexual misconduct that could rise to a criminal charge.
“We do get daily reports from all of the schools if there’s been an incident, whether [the officers] take a complaint and make a formal criminal charge or not,” Lisa Jones told me. Jones is an attorney in Gwinnett D.A.’s office and the supervisor to Gwinnett County Juvenile Court.
Jones said that these daily reports cover incidents ranging from a fight in a hallway to oral sex in the stairwell.
“Unfortunately, you know, some young men think it’s funny to touch a girl inappropriately, to grab her bottom. Obviously, those are the sexual offenses that are going to come to our attention,” Jones said.
When I ran the T. case by Jones, it did not seem unusual to her that an eighth grade boy touching a girl in the back of a classroom would be charged with sexual battery. Several civil rights lawyers have told me that school administrators in districts across the country face pressure to get police involved, and to err on the side of a higher charge, to avoid possible future litigation.
Criminal justice reformers have taken notice of the collision between these two civil rights struggles: one focused on protecting (mostly) girls from sexual violence, and the other focused on shielding boys of color from biased accusation and punishment. “Obviously, we support holding people accountable when they assault or inappropriately touch anyone,” said Zachary Norris, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit focused on race and mass incarceration. “[But] the impulse to punish first through the justice system, for everything and anything, is wrong-headed and mean-spirited and has devastating impact to family and community.”
Even Gwinnett County’s chief probation officer, Danica Porter–who describes her office as the “last stop” for kids who get in trouble–laments the missed opportunities for alternatives to criminal court.
“If they could put services in place and keep the child from going through the system, then the child has a higher chance of success,” Porter said. “If they could put services in place to correct the behavior and not have to get the courts involved, then those children wouldn’t have to be held to a higher standard by having to follow other conditions of probation.”
Once children like T.’s son are on probation, seemingly small lapses “can catch a kid up,” Porter said. For instance, if T.’s son misses a hearing date–which, at age 13, may happen for reasons outside of his control–this could become a violation that prolongs his court involvement and could even lead to incarceration. These potential snowballing effects on the life of a young person prompt grave concerns from child advocates about racial disparities in cases that escalate from schools to law enforcement.
THE #METOO MOVEMENT demands a reset on what’s considered tolerable behavior, but most of the conversation revolves around grown men in the workplace, not children in school. Boys in school are being left behind in this cultural shift. The increasing punishment for sexual harassment begs the question, what is being done to prevent sexual harassment from happening in the first place?
“As a school, we have to first teach them, before we suspend them,” said Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the leading experts in K-12 sexual harassment prevention. She advises schools on training staff and students, as young as kindergarteners, in personal space and consent.
Inside Gwinnett County Public Schools, district spokesperson Bernard Watson says they use progressive discipline, and that students and teachers receive training aimed to “prevent problems before they arise.” Gwinnett participates in nationwide programs including Child Lures, Teen Lures and Darkness to Light, which are designed to help recognize, prevent and report sexual assault and harassment. Though as early as 2012, Darkness to Light partnered with USA Gymnastics, which is currently under fire for failing to protect at least 368 gymnasts who have alleged sexual abuse over a 20-year period.
Peachtree Ridge, the same school under investigation for mishandling T.M.’s sexual assault in 2014, recently held a school-wide presentation on Title IX. “No one really took it seriously,” junior Riya Patel, 16, told me.
When the presentation turned to the subject of unwanted touching, Patel said she watched her classmates poke each other in the arm and mockingly shout, “Title IX!”
“The teachers did not treat it as important as they should’ve,” added her friend Leah Woldai, also 16. “I believe that was like the main problem.” If teachers had made it a serious issue, Woldai said students would understand, “It’s not something to joke about.”
Last fall, Woldai started a women’s rights club at Peachtree Ridge. In April, the group met to address what went wrong with their school’s Title IX training and floated the idea that sex ed could be a place for conversations to prevent sexual misconduct among students.
I decided to ask my own middle school health teacher, Nancy Howard, who taught in Gwinnett County for 19 years before retiring in 2016. I wondered about the role health educators could play in establishing positive norms and boundaries that include, for example, never slapping a classmate on the butt at school–ever.
Just as it had when I was a student, Gwinnett still follows a curriculum of abstinence-centered sex ed. Even within that curriculum, Mrs. Howard told me she would try to broach complex issues, like consent. She warned her students not to touch someone else without permission, even if they’re laughing. “But we kind of skirted around issues somewhat,” she said. “We put our foot in the water but we didn’t jump in completely.”
Mrs. Howard said she would typically reserve these kinds of conversations for the end of middle school.
T.’s son got in trouble at the very beginning of his eighth grade year. For him, and other boys in the same position, that conversation would have happened too late. ☐