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Newark failed to investigate sexual harassment complaints, U.S. Department of Education finds

A blue classroom door and two green doors are open in the middle of a school hallway.

Newark Public Schools violated a federal law protecting students from sex discrimination in schools, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights said in a review released on Aug. 28, 2023.

Erica Lee for Chalkbeat

Newark Public Schools repeatedly failed to investigate dozens of complaints of sexual harassment and did not take appropriate action to address substantiated complaints over a six-year span, a federal compliance review found.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found nine violations of Title IX, a federal law protecting students from discrimination on the basis of sex in schools and colleges, according to a letter sent from the department to Newark Superintendent Roger León on Monday.

The district last week approved a resolution agreement to ensure compliance with Title IX regulations and its response to complaints and reports of sexual harassment and assault in schools.

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“OCR determined that the district discriminated against students based on sex by failing to respond to incidents of sexual harassment and assault and that it failed to coordinate its responses through its designated Title IX coordinator, among other Title IX violations,” the federal department said in a press release on Monday. 

The review included an analysis of 80 sexual harassment complaints across district elementary and high schools, including Barringer and Weequahic High Schools and Dr. E. Alma Flagg Elementary School, which reported a high number of incidents. The complaints include allegations that employees sexually assaulted, kissed, and touched students, as well as incidents involving sexual assault between students. 

OCR also interviewed 27 current and former staff and reviewed the district’s sexual harassment procedures in handling sexual harassment complaints. The new findings are the latest in a series of harassment and diversity issues impacting students and employees in city schools. 

In June 2022, a lawsuit filed by a former employee claimed she was harassed and intimidated by district upper management and a lawsuit filed in August 2022 alleged that Science Park High School principal Darleen Gearhart discriminated against an employee, made racist comments, and created a hostile and retaliatory work environment at Sussex Avenue School. Most recently, students at the Newark School of Global Studies reported experiencing racial and religious harassment at the high school last year.

Newark Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment about the review on Monday. 

U.S. Department of Education reviews Title IX compliance

As part of the federal office’s review, OCR reviewed 80 complaints and “closely reviewed” schools with a high number of complaints, according to the department’s letter to the district. During the investigation, the office found an additional employee-to-student complaint for the 2016-17 school year and five more during the 2021-22 school year that the district had not investigated.

The review included nine of the district’s 18 high schools and 23 of the district’s 41 elementary schools that received sexual harassment complaints. As part of the review, the department selected Barringer, East Side, West Side, and Weequahic High Schools for “close review” and found that Barringer and East Side High Schools received the most complaints, or roughly 26% each, according to the letter. Weequahic High School received three complaints, two involving students with disabilities, the letter further read.

In addition to selecting schools with a high number of complaints for close review, the office also reviewed incidents of sexual harassment of students by employees at Central High School, Chancellor Elementary School, Horton Elementary School, and Peshine Avenue School.

Specifically, OCR found that the district failed to investigate and “respond appropriately” to reported incidents of sexual harassment of students by employees during school years 2016-17 through 2019-20 and 2021-22, the letter said. It also failed to investigate multiple incidents of alleged sexual harassment among students during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years. Instead, the district deferred the investigation of employee-to-student harassment to the state’s Department of Children and Families Institutional Abuse Investigation Unit to determine what measures should be implemented, the letter said.

“The district repeatedly failed to respond to incidents of student-to-student sexual harassment and to address the effects of such harassment on targeted students, did not take sufficient steps to prevent recurrence of harassment, and failed to provide adequate notice of the investigation outcomes to targeted students and their parents,” according to the letter to León. 

OCR also reviewed two more high schools that restricted student admission by application: Science Park High School, which reported one incident of student-to-student sexual harassment, and Eagle Academy for Young Men, which reported no incidents, the letter said.

Among elementary schools, the office decided to “closely review” Flagg Elementary “because it received 19% of the complaints at elementary schools alleging student-to-student sexual harassment,” the letter further read.  

Among the procedural violations, the federal office found that Newark’s Title IX coordinator did not, and currently does not, oversee the district’s response to sexual harassment complaints among students. The district’s Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying coordinator, Rashon Dwight, currently oversees student sexual harassment complaints. Parents and employees were also unaware of the coordinator’s role, the letter to León read. 

Newark also failed to implement and comply with a grievance procedure that complied with new amendments to Title IX regulations. OCR also found concerns with the district’s recordkeeping system to track incidents of sexual harassment across schools. 

Under the agreement with the department approved on Thursday, Newark agreed to resolve the violations.

The resolution agreement says Newark Public Schools will:

  • Ensure the Title IX coordinator oversees all of the district’s efforts to comply with the federal sex discrimination law and district investigations of sexual harassment involving its students and employees.
  • Develop a program to assess the effectiveness of the district’s Title IX anti-discrimination efforts.
  • Revise federal anti-discrimination policies and procedures to comply with Title IX regulations.
  • Train staff and students on how to identify sex discrimination and the reporting procedures.
  • Maintain records of sexual harassment reports.
  • Review incidents of employee-to-student and student-to-student sexual harassment from school years 2017-2018 through 2021-2022 to determine if further action is needed to provide a resolution for each.
  • Provide a notice of nondiscrimination that complies with federal sex discrimination laws. 
  • Conduct an annual school climate survey for district employees and students to evaluate the climate at each district school as it relates to sexual harassment and identify the next steps for OCR to review and approve.

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org

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