U.S. Education Department Announces Resolution of Civil Rights Investigation of Yakima School District (WA) Efforts to Address Harassment of Students

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U.S. Education Department Announces Resolution of Civil Rights Investigation of Yakima School District (WA) Efforts to Address Harassment of Students

February 4, 2015

The U.S. Department of Education announced today that its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has entered into a resolution agreement to resolve a compliance review of the Yakima School District, Washington. The review examined whether the District has taken appropriate action to address harassment of students on the bases of sex, race, color, national origin, and disability. Yakima School District is the 18th largest school district in Washington State with 23 schools and approximately 16,000 students. It is also the largest Latino majority district in Washington State.

After identifying relatively high rates of bullying in the district, OCR’s investigation found the district violated federal civil rights laws by failing to provide nondiscrimination notices or procedures for prompt and equitable resolution of student or employee complaints. In addition, OCR’s investigation revealed flawed district recordkeeping that prevented the district, or OCR, from determining whether a hostile environment exists for students and if so whether the district takes appropriate steps for solution.

“Bullying and harassment of students is a serious national issue with documented long-term effects on victims, bullies, and bystanders,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for the Office for Civil Rights. “Our federal civil rights laws clearly prohibit bullying and harassment based on protected identity characteristics. I appreciate the Yakima School District’s commitment to work with OCR to satisfy civil rights obligations to take steps to reduce bullying and harassment in schools within the District.”

The sheer number of incidents of harassment, specifically sexual harassment, contained in the District’s incident reports raised concerns about whether steps taken by the District are reasonably calculated to prevent harassment from recurring.This concern is further underscored by the fact that in many instances, disciplinarians could not identify the victim of the harassment; accordingly, disciplinarians could not confirm whether or not the reported incidents of harassment recurred following the respective reports and apparent disciplinary actions. The inability to identify the harassed students, due to deficiencies in the District’s record keeping, also raises the important question of whether appropriate steps, besides discipline, were taken to remedy the effects of harassment on the harassed students.

Prior to completing the compliance review, the district expressed an interest in resolving the identified violations and the remaining issues with a resolution agreement.

The district committed to take the following actions:

  • promptly investigate all incidents of harassment based on sex, race, color, national origin, and disability of which it has notice; and take appropriate action to end the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and remedy its effects if appropriate;
  • Hire or assign an equity consultant to assist with the district’s implementation of the agreement;
  • create a non-discrimination and anti-harassment statement that complies with Title IX, Section 504 and Title II; and provide effective notice of the statement to students, parents, employees and third parties;
  • establish grievance procedures compliant with Title IX, Section 504 and Title II; and provide effective notice of the procedures to students, parents, employees and third parties;
  • designate compliance coordinators and provide effective notice of the coordinators to students, parents, employees and third parties;
  • conduct annual school climate checks related to harassment incidents;
  • create a task force to suggest strategies for dealing with harassment in schools;
  • train staff and coordinators on obligations related to identifying, reporting, investigating, and taking appropriate action in response to harassment incidents;
  • train students on recognizing and reporting harassment;
  • create a system for investigating, record-keeping and tracking complaints and incidents of harassment; and,
  • create a system for monitoring the effectiveness of its response to harassment and conducting a self-assessment.

A copy of the resolution letter can be found here, and the agreement is posted here.

OCR’s mission is to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation through vigorous enforcement of civil rights. The office is responsible for enforcing federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination by educational institutions on the bases of disability, race, color, national origin, sex, and age, as well as the Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act of 2001. For details on how the office handles civil rights cases, please visit here.