Exactly fifty years ago on June 23, 1972, Congress passed Title IX. But the controversy in Charlotte suggests that many students still slip through the cracks of that landmark legislation’s lofty goal—particularly in elementary, middle, and high schools, which face widespread sexual violence but receive far less attention than Title IX cases in colleges.On the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the Biden administration announced that it would roll back large swathes of Trump-era changes to the law. But that process will take months and is certain to kick off battles over what, exactly, schools should do in sexual misconduct cases. Nearly 15,000 incidents of sexual violence were reported at K-12 schools in 2017-2018, the most recent year for which Department of Education data is available. That’s a 55-percent spike from the 2015-2016 school year, which saw about 9,600 reported incidents of sexual violence—and, likely, still an undercount. Compared to moneyed colleges, K-12 schools are also far less likely to be well-equipped to deal with sexual violence allegations, experts say, even though the victims they’re tasked with protecting are, overwhelmingly, children.
Now, current and former students want the feds to step in yet again. Over the last year, multiple people have publicly accused the district of silencing students who try to speak up about sexual harassment and violence.
“He was very pushy the entire time we were together,” Wombwell said. “It was, ‘Oh, like, you let me kiss you, can I touch your breasts?’ Or like, ‘Oh, you know, it doesn't count if you're wearing underwear.’ And then it was, ‘Oh, we already did it with your underwear on. What's the difference?’ And then it was, ‘Oh, I did it to you. You have to do it to me.’ And it just kept escalating and escalating.”“I don't think I have had a single first, sexually, that was completely consensual,” she continued.She tried to break up with him, but a couple weeks later, in October 2014, he messaged her that he had brought a gun to school, Wombwell said in interviews and a lawsuit she later filed. If she didn’t have sex with him, he threatened to hurt himself, she said.“I met him after class and he took me to the woods, and that's when he raped me,” Wombwell said.Wombwell said she tried to tell school officials that she had been raped. But the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer tasked with serving Myers Park High School told her that what had happened didn’t constitute rape, according to Wombwell’s lawsuit. Its then-principal allegedly told her that, if she moved forward with a “formal” report and authorities couldn’t substantiate her account, she could be suspended for having sex on campus.No one ever told her about her rights under Title IX, Wombwell said.
“I don't think I have had a single first, sexually, that was completely consensual.”
Patel, who used to work for the Office of Civil Rights, told me that, in her opinion, her old employer “absolutely” needs to investigate Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools again.“When schools punish survivors who come forward, they're sending a strong message to the students, to the community, that not only will they tolerate sexual harassment, but that they're not going to take it seriously, that it's not safe to come forward as a survivor who's actively seeking support and help from the school,” Patel said. “It's very concerning.”
If a school doesn’t follow Title IX, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is supposed to make them. Between 2015 and 2017, the office investigated Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools at least three times.
Wombwell went public in June 2021, revealing in news articles and on social media that she was Jill Roe. The floodgates seemed to burst: More women came forward to say that, they, too, had been sexually assaulted by classmates at Myers Park. One woman, Serena Evans, said she was raped in a school bathroom in 2016, when she was just 15 years old; when she tried to report it to a school administrator, he also threatened her with suspension if her allegation didn’t pan out, said Evans, who recently sued over her allegations. Evans and Wombwell have since joined forces to fight for change in the district.Doe’s lawsuit is ongoing. Myers Park’s then-principal was suspended, then reassigned after an investigation to another role in the district, where he makes more than $150,000. Two administrators at Hawthorne Academy have also been reassigned.
More women came forward to say that, they, too, had been sexually assaulted by classmates at Myers Park.
For Wombwell and the other current and former students trying to change Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, their campaign can sometimes seem like a relentless series of institutional betrayals. In March, Wombwell, Evans, and their allies showed up at a meeting for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education, hoping to convince its members to take action on Title IX.
“I think a lot of K-12 schools have intentionally hidden information about Title IX and people's rights.”
It was, perhaps, the last betrayal. Wombwell had next to no faith that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools would ever listen to her or her allies. She wants the Office of Civil Rights to investigate the district, again. She wants anybody who might have covered up sexual assault to lose their jobs. And she doesn’t want what happened to her to happen to anyone else, ever, anywhere.“This is happening all over the country,” Wombwell said. “Title IX policy needs to be updated. The changes that Betsy DeVos made to Title IX need to be undone, because they're horrific to survivors.”If she had been the only woman to come forward, Wombwell thinks she could have moved on from what happened in the woods, from how she was treated once she rushed out of them.“I think I've done enough healing that I could work on healing for myself and maybe radically accept the things that I have to let go of, to heal,” Wombwell said. “But seeing that it wasn't just me, it's still happening—I can't move on and let it keep happening. This is so much bigger than me. I have to do something about it. I just have to.”
“This is happening all over the country.”