Addressing sexual harassment and misconduct claims

School navigates complex process to address student complaints of improper conduct

A report of improper action, questions posed by school administrators and the search for available evidence are among the initial steps necessary to address school-related claims of sexual misconduct or harassment. These cases are highly nuanced and carry the greatest level of significance for the parties involved.

There are important distinctions between sexual misconduct and harassment claims, including differences in the applicable process and penalties. According to the FCPS Student Rights and Responsibilities (SR&R), “sexual misconduct includes unwelcome sexual advances, regardless of sexual orientation; requests for sexual favors; and other inappropriate verbal, electronic, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” Sexual harassment, in contrast, is defined as “unwelcome conduct determined by a reasonable person to be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a student equal access to an FCPS education program or activity” or “dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.”

The SR&R explains that the investigation of cases involving sexual harassment must be submitted to the Title IX Office and involve a formal investigation by specialized investigators and a decision by a Hearing Officer. In contrast, sexual misconduct investigations are largely school-run, which is less regulated. While students can report instances of improper conduct directly to the Title IX Office, they often approach school administrators with claims, beginning a process that requires administrators to exercise discretion as to how they address the complaints.

“One month, you might get one [complaint] and then another one you might not, but two is usually the most complaints we get in a month,” Principal Ellen Reilly said.

The process for addressing the claims differs based on where the reported incident occurred. When claims relate to issues that happened outside of school and are not actively impacting the student in school, administrators advise students to call the Fairfax County Police Department non-emergency line. If the alleged incident took place on school property or there is an alleged disruption to a student’s learning environment, the school begins an investigation.

“If it happened in school, we 100 percent take care of it, but if it happens outside of school, at a party or something like that, usually [students] come in, and they tell us,” Reilly said. “We tell them to turn it over to the police and then we try to offer supports. We offer the counselor to talk to, the school psychologist, or social worker.”

As mandatory reporters under Virginia law, school administrators, counselors and teachers with “reason to suspect that a child is abused or neglected” must report the information they learn.

“If it’s criminal in nature, and it’s a violation of law, and [students] make a report, they can come to me or go to the police department, and I’ll get it,” School Resource Officer (SRO) Scott Davis said. “The school is a mandated reporter, so if they hear something, they have to come and report it if it would be deemed of mandated reporting [severity].”

The SRO and school administrators work separately on cases, with each having different rules and protocols for addressing the complaints. Administrators follow FCPS guidelines, while the SRO follows the police department’s rules and legal requirements.

“I’m not involved with [the school] investigation,” Davis said. “I don’t get involved with their discipline of what happens here at school because we’re totally separate.”

While staff can suggest that students who approach them regarding misconduct complaints speak with the SRO or the police department, victims are not required to follow this advice.

“We can’t make a victim tell us a report,” Davis said. “We don’t go out and look for victims. If the victim… decides to move forward with [the complaint], then they come forward.”

When Reilly receives a complaint of sexual misconduct or harassment, she contacts an FCPS Title IX coordinator to receive a professional recommendation on how to address the case.

“There’s a specific person who we would talk to who handles high school, and I talk to them about the scenario.…they would say [if] it’s sexual harassment or it’s not,” Reilly said. “I always call them before I do anything, and then…sometimes they’ll come to investigate it if they need to.”

If a student approaches an assistant principal regarding a complaint, the principal is not always immediately alerted; the assistant principal may conduct investigatory steps to determine whether the case warrants additional action.

“We need to find out what is happening, try to get to the root of what’s [occurred], and gather that information first and then go from there,” assistant principal Jennifer York said.
This aspect of the process has been criticized by some students who have submitted complaints of sexual harassment and misconduct because evidence and witnesses are not always available to support the claims.

“My complaint was against a long-time teacher, so there were virtually no consequences for my attacker,” an anonymous student said. “I was told that without evidence my words meant nothing.”

Assistant principals investigate cases to determine how to address cases. It is unclear how administrators approach cases in which there is not direct evidence of misconduct.

“We always do our due diligence to investigate, whether it’s to look at video from hallways, talk to witnesses, and obviously communicate with the family,” York said. “It comes down to the information that we’re able to collect and if we feel like there’s a false claim being made, or we have evidence that a false claim is being made, that will be communicated with the family.”
The families of students against whom complaints are made are not immediately contacted regarding the complaint against their child.

“We would investigate because we need to know what we’re going to say to the parents,” York said. “We can’t just call and not have any information, so we need to at least figure out as much as we can, so we can explain that and communicate that with the family.”

After receiving complaints of sexual misconduct or harassment, administrators alert the complainant’s parents about the claim, something that does not immediately occur for the parents of students against whom the allegations are made.

“My parents were contacted but his parents were not,” an anonymous student said. “I feel that parents shouldn’t be immediately contacted. I think that they need a better investigation process rather than just calling the parents and telling the victim they are sorry such an event even occurred.”

Officials recommend that students come forward if they feel they have experienced or witnessed sexual misconduct or harassment.

“If you don’t feel comfortable coming to [me], come to somebody. Talking about it in a sense can help,” Davis said. “If you feel…it was harassment and assault or come forward and talk to somebody, getting it off your chest is [a beneficial]…part of going to talk to counselors or teachers.”

The process for addressing claims of sexual misconduct and harassment remains complex and is filled with fact-specific intricacies and challenges. While the system used by McLean and FCPS may differ in specific instances, evidence is always an important aspect of the process.

“If you think you are being sexually harassed, write down exactly what is said or done to you as soon as it happens. When going to report these actions, especially within the school, you will be asked to show evidence of misconduct,” an anonymous student stated. “Particularly if you are reporting someone in a position of power, your word means nothing without documentation/evidence of the misconduct. I know how difficult it can be to speak out. However, bringing consequences down upon the perpetrator is the only way to protect the next person from experiencing the same thing that you have.”