WASHINGTON — The Education Department on Thursday publicly ordered the Chicago public school system to thoroughly overhaul the way it deals with sexual harassment and violence, after the department said it found “widespread” failures to respond to complaints of sexual misconduct by students and staff.
Kenneth L. Marcus, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, unveiled an agreement with the district that will require it to take a range of actions to meet requirements of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination and outlines rules for how colleges and schools should respond to sexual harassment.
The district will have to revamp its system for processing sexual misconduct complaints and take steps to remedy past mishandling by disciplining current and former staff members who failed to take appropriate action. Victims will be offered independent reviews of the districts’ decisions.
“These changes amount to a substantial overhaul; they are not mere tweaks to an existing policy,” Mr. Marcus said. “They require a very significant rebuild.”
The Chicago agreement is the second major Title IX investigation the department has announced in two weeks. Last week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos revealed the results of two investigations into Michigan State University’s handling of complaints against convicted sex criminal Lawrence G. Nassar, and a former dean, William Strampel. The university was hit with a $4.5 million fine, the highest penalty ever levied against a university for violating federal law.
The Chicago case also sheds light on the lesser-known problem of sexual assault in K-12 schools. Mr. Marcus said that the agreement, which the district accepted on Wednesday, concluded what he called “the most comprehensive investigation that” the department’s Office for Civil Rights “has ever undertaken of sexual violence in a major urban public school system.”
The civil rights investigation does not allow for financial penalties, but it will require years of federal oversight, and any further violations could result in a loss of federal funding. Last year, the department withheld $4 million in grant funding from the district shortly after an investigation by The Chicago Tribune revealed rampant and ignored sexual abuse in the school system.
“Over the last several years, Americans have become increasingly aware of sexual violence on college and university campuses,” Mr. Marcus said. “This case may be a wake-up call that the problem exists on elementary and secondary school grounds as well.”
The department is currently investigating more than 250 Title IX complaints related to sexual violence and sexual harassment in K-12 school districts, according to a department database.
In a letter Thursday announcing the federal agreement, Janice K. Jackson, chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, wrote that since 2018, the district had “left no stone unturned and taken significant steps toward improving Title IX compliance.”
She outlined several changes that the school system has made in recent years, including establishing a new Office of Student Protections and Title IX and turning over investigations of adult-on-student sexual abuse to an independent arm of the district. The system has also rechecked the backgrounds of all its employees.
“These were tragic incidents in which some students did not receive the comprehensive support they deserved,” Ms. Jackson wrote of the Education Department’s findings. “As a district, we have been working to ensure no student ever goes through that again.”
The department’s Office for Civil Rights launched its investigation following two complaints against the district from students in 2015 and 2016. Investigators reviewed the district’s handling of complaints dating back to 2012, including 2,800 student-on-student sexual harassment complaints, and 280 adult-on-student complaints.
In addition to multiple Title IX violations, Mr. Marcus said the department found “disturbing” incidents, and he called the district’s response “inexcusable.” The department found that the school district for more than a decade had failed to meet basic requirements of Title IX, such as appointing a coordinator to facilitate complaints.
In a scathing report, the department outlined several instances in which the district failed to properly support students after they had been groped, grabbed and fondled by peers and failed to take action against adults who engaged in misconduct — including sexual relations — with students.
In one case that investigators called “egregious,” an instructor was accused of sexually harassing students throughout his 20-year career. He would touch students, tell sexually explicit jokes, compare students’ bodies to their peers, stare at their breasts, caress their thighs and stomachs and touch their buttocks. He would stroke them inappropriately, the report said, “starting from the top of their backs to the small of their backs.”
In one instance, investigators wrote, a female student reported that the teacher grabbed her thigh to take hold of a temporary student identification that she had taped to her pants, stating: “You girls wear your I.D.’s down there so that us old men get in trouble for looking.”
The teacher was temporarily reassigned to an administrative office while the incident was reported to the Department of Children & Family Services. He returned to the classroom several weeks later and was told by the principal “to attend an in-depth workshop on sexual harassment issues,” the report said.
“For years, the district’s management, handling, and oversight of complaints of student-on-student and adult-on-student sexual harassment have been in a state of disarray, to the great detriment of the students the district is responsible for educating,” the report concluded.
Advocates praised the Education Department’s investigation and findings, and said they hoped it will set a precedent.
“Unfortunately, there are hundreds of school districts across the country, large and small, that mismanage reported peer and adult sexual harassment and fail to comply with Title IX regulations every day,” said Joel Levin, a co-founder of Stop Sexual Assaults In Schools, which advocates for Title IX enforcement in elementary and secondary schools. “We hope these districts will study this resolution agreement and revise their anti-harassment procedures and practices accordingly.”