U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights Resolves Sex-Based Harassment Investigation in Rhinelander School District in Wisconsin

U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights Resolves Sex-Based Harassment Investigation in Rhinelander School District in Wisconsin

July 6, 2023

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) today announced that the Rhinelander School District in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, entered into an agreement to ensure compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 when responding to harassment based on gender identity.

OCR’s investigation reflects that during the 2021-22 school year, a nonbinary student and their parent reported to the district that students repeatedly mocked and targeted the student during multiple classes, while multiple teachers repeatedly used incorrect pronouns for the student and one teacher removed the student from class on the ground that the teacher could not protect the student from harassment by the other students.

In addition, OCR reviewed evidence that students bumped the harassed student in the hallways and called the student a derogatory slur for LGBTQI+ people. Ultimately, the district responded to these allegations of harassment by changing the student’s schedule to attend school in-person for only three classes and to take additional classes through self-directed study.

Based on the evidence in the investigation to date, OCR is concerned that the district response to the persistent harassment limited the student’s participation in school activities. Additionally, the information produced in the investigation does not reflect the district taking steps to ensure the student’s equal access to education with their peers. 

OCR is also concerned that the district records miscoded sex-based harassment, including the use of a slur for LGBTQI+ people, as “peer mistreatment”; did not document the multiple complaints of sex-based harassment brought by the student and their parent; and did not adequately document the district’s responses. Moreover, the district Title IX coordinator reported that she was unaware of reports of sex-based harassment of the student until after the complainant filed with OCR and therefore had not coordinated a response consistent with Title IX.

“Congress promises every student a right to fully participate in educational programs without harassment based on sex. Rhinelander School District has now committed to take steps to ensure that promise of equal access to education for all its students,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon. 

The district’s commitments in the voluntary resolution agreement include:

  • Evaluating whether compensatory services or other services are necessary for the harassed student due to the instructional time the student missed when attending in-person classes on an only part-time basis.
  • Providing training to all district administrators and staff regarding the district’s obligation, in compliance with Title IX, to respond to complaints of sex-based harassment.
  • Providing age-appropriate information programs for students to address sex-based harassment, including what students should do if they believe they or other students have experienced such harassment. And,
  • Conducting a climate survey to assess the prevalence of sex-based harassment and obtain suggestions for effective ways to address harassment.

The letter to Rhinelander School District is available here, and the resolution agreement is available here.