The U.S. Department of Education has determined that Chino Valley Unified School District violated students’ civil rights in how it responded — or failed to respond — to reports of sexual harassment of student athletes in the fall of 2017.
The department’s Office of Civil Rights announced on Tuesday, April 5, that the district violated Title IX, the 1972 federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools. The harassment was so bad that students’ access to the school’s athletics program was effectively limited, according to investigators, and created a hostile educational environment for students at an unnamed high school. Team members avoided the locker room, sought counseling and some left both the team or the school entirely.
“After a careful review of the information gathered during the investigation, OCR found that the district failed to provide an effective response to notice of harassment in violation of Title IX and its implementing regulation with respect to the issue investigated,” the agency’s 18-page letter to the district reads in part.
On March 31, the district signed a resolution agreement, pledging to take multiple steps to prevent similar events from happening in the future.
In a statement Wednesday, April 6, Chino Valley Unified officials said the district “is wholeheartedly committed to preserving and protecting the well-being of its students by providing a positive learning environment where academic and athletic instruction takes place.”
According to the school district, at the time of the 2017 incident district administrators immediately obtained the services of an outside agency to investigate events involving student athletes.
“Although verbal offers of counseling were provided to parties involved,” the district said in its statement, “the findings concluded that an additional offer of counseling was appropriate, as well as training on how to properly identify and report a harsh environment for all district administrators, coaches, and student athletes.”
In its letter to the district, the education department said the harassment included the simulation of “forcible sexual contact” between team members, filmed by other team members, along with students having their pants pulled down, and students taking and sharing pictures of their genitals with other members of the team, and placing their genitals on or near other students’ faces and bodies.
In response, school officials — who knew what was going on within the first seven weeks of the 2017 fall season, according to the agency’s letter — initially didn’t do much.
“Coach B told investigators he did not inform either the School Principal or the Athletics Director because he and Coach C handled it, and he ‘did not want to blow it up and give it a life of its own,’ ” the department’s letter reads in part. “Coach B also told investigators that it was not the worst thing that had happened in his career. He did not describe … the ‘worse thing’ he was referring to and whether it involved the [redacted content] team; the investigator’s notes do not reflect any follow up with Coach B to obtain further detail.”
The unnamed school’s Title IX administrator raised an alarm, though, and the district ended up conducting a more thorough investigation soon after.
“One student described that while he initially thought the ‘humping’ conduct he experienced was a joke, it started to happen more and more and that was when he realized it was not a joke. One student stated that when Students 2 and 3 would come towards him, he would tell them ‘no,’ that he felt ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘harassed’ because they ‘overpowered’ him and he felt weak in that position; and that he felt unsafe because he felt it could happen again,” the department’s letter reads. “One student described that the locker room conduct was why he did not change in the locker room; that the incidents made him feel awkward, and that he did not want to play [redacted content] anymore.”
More than 20 videos of similar incidents were reportedly posted on social media during 2017, according to the education department.
“One student reported that his teammates did not say anything because they were afraid they would be ‘next’ or be bullied as a result,” the department’s letter reads. “He reported that on the same day that the video was taken, he heard someone yell, ‘let’s get [student’s name]!’ The students then started to ‘hump’ him and he tried to push them back but was unable. He told the investigator that he felt he could not tell anyone what happened due to fear and he believed he ‘just had to get through it.’ “
Students told investigators that school officials told them to cover up evidence of the incidents.
“Multiple students reported being directed by the principal and coaches to delete any videos or images they had on their phones and told that their behavior could put the coaches’ jobs in jeopardy and harm the school and the [redacted content] program’s reputation,” the department’s letter reads.
In June 2018, school board members voted to allow two of the students who had been involved in the incidents to return to the school. According to the Department of Education, the students rejoined the team the following school year.
But other students left.
“One parent told OCR that during summer 2018 her son, who was a witness to and a target of the conduct, requested to be transferred out of the School after learning that the two would be returning to the school and team in fall 2018,” according to the department’s letter. “According to the parent, her son began receiving counseling as a result of challenging emotions that were arising from his witnessing and being a target of the incidents of fall 2017. In the fall (of) 2018, another student who had been targeted by some of the conduct disenrolled from the school and enrolled at another district school. Because he felt uncomfortable and out of place, according to his parent, the student later enrolled in an [redacted content] school. The student began receiving private counseling following the initiation of the investigation the previous year.”
In a separate incident at another high school, male student athletes were caught spanking another teammate with his pants down around his ankles, while other students filmed it and shared the video with others.
On March 31, the district agreed to take steps in response to the investigation:
- All former athletes from the first school’s fall 2017 team would be contacted and offered counseling services or reimbursement for counseling services they had sought in response to the sexual harassment
- Conduct a climate survey for the school’s athletics team
- Train district and school administrators, along with coaching staff, about the requirement that they respond effectively to sexual harassment
- Give Title IX training for Chino Valley Unified student athletes, so they know how to recognize and report sexual harassment
- The district must report on its training and how it’s responded to complaints of sexual harassment through the end of the 2022-23 school year
“I thank Chino Valley Unified School District for its commitment now to ensure that its athletics program and other school activities will be free from sexual harassment, and to take steps necessary to support students subject to past harassment in school,” Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, is quoted as saying in the department’s news release.
Chino Valley Unified has fielded other complaints about sexual harassment of student athletes. In July 2018, after the end of the school year, Ayala High girls basketball team members complained of bullying and unwanted touching by their coaches, including a male coach resting his hands on the inner thighs of a 15-year-old student while speaking with her. After the complaints were reported in the media, the entire girls basketball coaching staff resigned.
The district has four comprehensive high schools, meaning at least half of the schools reported incidents of sexualized bullying or abuse in 2017.