According to three separate federal complaints filed in the past year, New York City's Department of Education is allegedly plagued with systematic failures when it comes to preventing sexual violence and harassment in the city's public schools.
Broadly has learned of at least three instances in which young black women reported to school administrators that they had been sexually assaulted by their peers. Instead of receiving support and intervention, however, the traumatized students allegedly endured retaliation—or even outright disbelief that the sexual assaults had occurred.
Lawyer Carrie Goldberg, who is representing the students, has filed complaints with the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR)—each of which Broadly has reviewed in redacted form—charging discrimination on the basis of sex and disability, as well as retaliation. "The New York City Department of Education has a rape crisis, especially when it comes to young black girls who live in poverty," she told Broadly in a recent phone interview.
According to the first complaint, in April 2015, an eighth grade student at Spring Creek Community School in East New York was attacked and raped by a classmate while waiting for the bus home from school. The assailant "surreptitiously used his cell phone to record himself penetrating [her] anus and mouth," according to the complaint. In the weeks after the attack, the complaint alleges, the victim refused to eat, suffered from panic attacks, and "experienced excruciating pain in her body and genitals."
Later that month, the complaint states, the video started circulating around the school, and the student who had been assaulted on camera faced sustained taunting and harassment from her classmates. Although the circulation of the video functionally amounted to the distribution of child pornography, school administrators allegedly declined to fully investigate or bring in experts to determine how and when the videos had been shared—they simply deleted the videos as they came across them in students' phones. Per the complaint, school administrators also instructed the survivor to stay home until the video got "under control."
The second complaint alleges that in February 2016, seven boys assaulted a 15-year-old girl with development delays in the stairwell of Teachers Preparatory High School: According to the complaint, two of the boys forced her to give them oral sex while "the rest of the group watched and stood guard as lookouts to make sure no one interrupted." The young woman reported what occurred; although she told multiple administrators that she had been "made" to perform oral sex, the complaint states, she was later accused of engaging in consensual sexual conduct on school premises and subsequently suspended for six days as punishment—even though NYPD were simultaneously pursuing criminal charges against one of the alleged perpetrators.
The New York City Department of Education has a rape crisis, especially when it comes to young black girls who live in poverty.
In a third complaint, a 13-year-old student at Granville T. Woods Middle School was sexually assaulted in a hallway by a peer who had a previous record of engaging in similarly abusive conduct; the assault allegedly took place in November 2015. The school administration did not accommodate the student's requests from the student's mother that the offender be removed from the survivor's classes and lunch period, so the student's family requested a transfer—but it took the DOE weeks and weeks to arrange this alternate placement, according to the complaint.
In the interim, the DOE allegedly called the student's mother and threatened to call the Administration for Children's Services and charge her with neglect if she did not bring her daughter back to school.
In an email to Broadly, the Department of Education denied these allegations and stressed their commitment to assisting students who report any kind of violence, including sexual assault.
Goldberg told Broadly that while she thought the first instance might constitute an aberration, and the second a coincidence, by the time the third was referred to her she knew it was something greater. "I realized this is a pattern and practice; this is an epidemic," she said. "This is so far beyond a coincidence."
Advocates believe this may be an issue of institutional and societal discrimination, not only on the basis of gender, but also race and class. According to Ashley Hobbs, the communications coordinator for Black Women's Blueprint, "There needs to be a very serious, intricate review of the practices in place. Both in secondary and higher education, black girls are at higher risk of not being believed when they have been raped, and they receive little to no justice."
According to the complaints, none of the students or families affected by these sexual assaults were provided with information about their rights under Title IX, a federal law which prohibits schools receiving public funds to discriminate on the basis of sex. In addition, none of the school administrations appear to have conducted a comprehensive investigation into the sexual assaults, nor did they offer appropriate remedies as is required under the city's own regulations. Instead, as the complaints outline, students faced retaliation and punishment for reporting these assaults, including disciplinary sanctions and exclusion from school, which is prohibited by law. In addition, neither the students nor their families were offered access to support services, like counseling, according to their lawyer.
The NYC DOE employs only one Title IX coordinator for the approximately 1.1 million students it serves; this individual is charged with ensuring that administrators and teachers know how to fully comply with Title IX, as well as with addressing any patterns or systemic problems that pertain to sex discrimination.
According to a survey by the American Association of University Women, in the 2010-2011 school year, 48 percent of students experienced some form of sexual harassment at school.
The singular Title IX coordinator underlines that this is a top-down problem at NYC DOE, according to Goldberg, who wants to see one coordinator in every school. "We can't really put the blame on single administrators," said Goldberg. "This is a Chancellor problem. Someone is refusing to prioritize sexual assault."
In an email to Broadly, the city strenuously denied the allegations made by Goldberg. "Our legal team is reviewing these deeply troubling complaints and will respond to the Office for Civil Rights regarding any pending matters," said DOE Deputy Press Secretary Toya Holness. "Nothing is more important than the safety of all students and staff, and we have policies in place that ensure that incidents are reported, investigated and appropriately addressed."
One of the three cases is already under investigation by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. Goldberg hopes the Department of Justice will join the investigation to send a message that "this demographic of victim is worth protecting."
For Goldberg, however, the question is not whether the DOE failed these students, but rather why the city appears to have so egregiously failed those it was charged to protect. "Whether by official act or omission, the end result is that sexual assault victims suffer twice in NYC DOE," she wrote in the third complaint. "Once at the hands of the individual that attacked them, and again under the heel of a bureaucracy that is required to act in their best intent."