UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Ohio — Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District officials have further defined their “boots-on-the-ground” approach to dealing with ongoing sex-based harassment issues.
The findings of a “root cause analysis” undertaken on the heels of a Dec. 10 walkout by Heights High students has shown a “longstanding culture of harassment,” with officials noting that the initial study had wrapped up about a month prior to a second classroom walkout on March 8.
As for the allegations, Superintendent Elizabeth Kirby said at the outset of the nearly two-hour meeting April 19 that “this is something we do not tolerate or condone and that we really want to work to mitigate. This issue was brought to us as a concern by our students, and I want to thank them for raising their voices. They have been extremely enlightening and helpful.”
Due to privacy and confidentiality concerns, details of any accusations were not discussed publicly, Kirby added.
“The committee was not tasked with addressing any issues of staff or student discipline, as there are other vehicles for that,” Kirby said. “They were tasked with looking at what was really behind some of the student concerns.”
Some students and parents, through a community coalition called “CH-UH — Enough is Enough!” that has gained over 500 signatures in an online petition, have also asked for changes to the school district’s dress code, an issue that may be considered later.
One of the first recommendations from the stakeholder committee calls for training — by the start of the next school year — for all staff in federal Title IX program sex-based harassment policy through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
Although best known as the federal program that put college women’s athletics on a more equal footing with their male counterparts, “Title Nine” also defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it effectively denies equal access to education.”
Other recommendations from the stakeholders’ committee — consisting of facilitator and CH-UH Director of Student Services Karen Liddell-Anderson, a student, parents, a principal, a teacher, a counselor, a security guard and district Title IX coordinators Paul Rusinko and Toia Robinson-Snowden — include:
— Hiring more school district security guards to monitor unauthorized and unsupervised areas where students who cut class can hide — such as unoccupied rooms, storage areas and other isolated and remote spaces
— Establishing a school-based community of staff, students and parents to maintain an open dialogue on the sex-based harassment continuum (mild, moderate and severe)
— Setting up a “safe place” where students can go to address their concerns and questions
— Consulting with local universities regarding their policies and procedures
— Implementing “positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS)” to resolve any unclear or inconsistent expectations
— Possible coordination of all proposed solutions on a K-12 basis.
“Initially as a committee, we were looking at Heights High, where all of our work was focused,” Liddell-Anderson told the school board.
“But when we started looking at solutions, I saw no reason why we couldn’t recommend that these solutions go K-12, as long as they are tailored in a manner that is age and grade-level specific and appropriate.”
Liddell-Anderson also emphasized that root cause analysis provides a basis for continuous improvement and is not a “one-and-done” process.
“The walkout in December was not the problem — it alerted us to the greater problem,” she told the board. “And there can be multiple root causes. We all acknowledged as a committee that this is a complex problem.”
In fact, the stakeholders’ committee identified as many as 76 contributing issues and underlying causes.
As a Title IX coordinator, Robinson-Snowden said that there are instances where the staff follows up with both parties to “go over the allegations, if applicable.”
An “Impact vs. Occurrence” chart in the presentation showed there have been 25 documented Title IX complaints — so far — logged in the CH-UH district over the past five school years.
One Title IX case reported in the 2017-2018 school year was followed by 11 complaints in the 2018-2019 school year, then six the following year (2019-2020), when Kirby started as superintendent.
This was followed up by one case logged in the 2020-2021, then another six Title IX complaints this school year, at least as of Feb. 3.
Still in the works is a proposed adjustment to the school district dress code that the CH-UH Board of Education requested in the summer of 2021, with student feedback and suggestions shared over the winter.
The online petition contends that a more modern and revised “gender-neutral and anti-racist” dress code is needed, as well as one that is consistent across all buildings.
“The existing dress codes invalidate self-expression, which leads to a lot of conflict between students and administrators,” the petition states, adding that current CH-UH dress codes “vary by building, are outdated, use binary language and promote the objectification of students’ bodies when enforced.”
Discussions continue, and that remains a goal for implementation in time for the 2022-2023 school year, district officials noted.
Some of the issues at hand were also discussed at an April 6 joint meeting of the CH-UH school board, respective mayors and councils from both cities, and the Heights Libraries board of trustees and administration.
Aside from the dress code, preliminary plans also call for assistance through the district’s partnership with the MetroHealth hospital system.
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