Editorial: A tradition of silence

The WSS Editorial Board voted 19-0 in favor of a new ICCSD policy proposal regarding the handling of bullying and harassment cases.

Photo illustration by Angela Zirbes and Pareen Mhatre

Policy proposal: The Iowa City Community School District should update its Good Conduct Rule to outline specific policy guidelines for handling cases of bullying and harassment, particularly in instances where criminal charges have not been filed. A separate, transparent process should be established for handling cases in which sexual assault claims have been filed.

Accusations of sexual misconduct against an ever-growing list of public figures have precipitated discussions of sexual harassment and assault. This growing issue strikes close to home; numerous sources approached West Side Story and have all stated that they are unwilling to speak out publicly because of a disconnect they feel with the administration. West Side Story finds it necessary to propose policy changes that should be instituted in order to make students feel more comfortable reporting and discussing sexual harassment and assault.

It is the Iowa City Community School District’s policy that all students must abide by the Good Conduct Rule, which states that students must “serve as good role models” in order to participate in extracurricular activities. The Good Conduct Rule lists some specific offenses, such as possession of alcohol or illegal substances and explicit punishments for each offense; however, bullying and harassment are not mentioned. Thus, one of the most glaring flaws with the Good Conduct Rule is that claims of bullying and harassment are not under the jurisdiction of the administration.

For example, when a case that falls under the Good Conduct Rule involving an athlete is reported to the administration, the decision of whether to punish the student is at the discretion of the coach of the sport the student is involved in. Directors of other clubs have similar discretion in these decisions. According to West High’s athletic director, Craig Huegel, all incidents are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. However, Huegel said, it is difficult to take action without a criminal charge being filed or actual substantiation of the claim.

Yet not all victims are willing to undergo the process of filing criminal charges and may choose to seek help from the school instead. But even in cases where the administration decides a student’s bullying claim is founded, leaders of extracurriculars may choose not to take action. It is therefore important to establish specific policy guidelines for how the district should handle cases where claims of sexual misconduct have been made against a student. A specific step-by-step outline of how a sexual misconduct claim is processed by the administration needs to be written and made public in order to make the protocol transparent so that administrators are held responsible for stopping sexual assault.

Before establishing guidelines for handling claims of sexual misconduct, it’s important to first define all terminology relevant to the topic, including but not limited to: sexual harassment, sexual abuse, retaliation, stalking and intimidation. Above all, it is vital to define consent in the context of K-12 students, taking into account legal ages of consent and sexual or dating behavior in minors. It must be made clear that participation in sexual activity does not invalidate consent, and some students are unable to consent due to age, disability or intoxication from drugs or alcohol. Defining these terms will give students a baseline which they can use to file a sexual misconduct complaint, and help authorities know what to look for when conducting sexual misconduct investigations.

The district must identify different methods a victim can take with regards to a sexual misconduct claim. Many students may be unsure of how to go about reporting sexual assault or harassment. There needs to be direct outreach to students to inform them of how to report an incident and detail the resources the district has to offer both for victims and witnesses seeking to help a friend. If a student wishes to file a criminal complaint, the district should provide contact information for the proper authorities and provide the victim with information on local or state laws regarding sexual misconduct. If a student does not feel comfortable with a formal criminal complaint, the district should make it clear that there is an option to file a confidential complaint with an independent investigation conducted by the ICCSD or West High administrators while also informing the victim that confidentiality may restrict the scope of the investigation.

This investigation process should be made transparent to those involved in the confidential complaint by providing timeframes starting with the beginning of the investigation and ending with the conclusion of the investigation and the verdict. The timeframe should not be used to rush an investigation and render incomplete results but rather as a means to provide reassurance and further transparency to the victim regarding the investigation process. The student should be made aware of the standards that investigators will use to gather evidence. The student should be made to understand that specific details and punishments cannot be disclosed under state and federal privacy laws. The district should outline specific punishments, potentially including but not limited to: sanctions; in-school accommodations for the complainant, including increased monitoring or schedule changes; and rehabilitation measures for the perpetrator, including counseling or courses on sexual misconduct.

Although the ICCSD’s bullying hotline is an important anonymous resource, students may still feel uncomfortable reporting sexual misconduct because it is unclear what happens after a text is sent. Therefore, a clear process for investigating sexual misconduct is crucial not only to ensuring the administration is accountable for fairly evaluating each case, but giving victims a sense of clarity and agency throughout the process.

In addition, the district must also establish safeguards to prevent retaliation against victims or witnesses who choose to report an incident. The administration should encourage students to come forward anonymously and institute a set of sanctions that may be taken against students who harass victims following the filing of an incident. If a report of sexual assault comes to the district, the victim should be immediately offered resources, such as help from an advocate or academic accommodations.

Lastly, but most importantly, both members of the school community and the district must be made aware of the sexual misconduct and the district’s sexual misconduct policy. The effort to prevent sexual misconduct must be preceded by an effort to educate students on the harmful effects it can have and how sexual misconduct will be punished. The district should thus create a mandatory information session for all members of the school district regarding sexual misconduct policy, and outline and schedule other programs. Above all, employees, particularly guidance counselors, should be trained on how to handle complaints. According to a study from Break the Cycle, 80 percent of counselors feel unprepared to handle sexual misconduct complaints; the district thus should train all its counselors on the specifics of the policy and use sexual misconduct experts and officers to train all relevant personnel in the investigation process. It is important that the district makes this broad commitment instead of handling sexual misconduct as isolated instances; this is a necessary step in transforming the ICCSD community into a safe space and building trust between the students and the administrators.

This is not to say that the administration does not have policies in place to protect victims—West High offers academic accommodations for victims of sexual harassment or assault, which includes making changes to students’ schedules so that a victim will not have to see their harasser in the hallways or parking lot. Counselors and teachers are available to help students at any time. However, we hope these proposed policies will open the discussion for effectuating positive change. The Good Conduct Rule hasn’t been updated since 2011. It’s time to bring it in line with current, pressing issues at West.