Sexual Harassment in Chicago’s Schools

Last month Chicago Public Schools agreed to change the way it handled complaints of sexual harassment in Chicago’s schools. It was forced into the agreement by the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. OCR enforces compliance with Title IX, the anti-discrimination law for schools and colleges that receive federal funds. To bring Chicago Public Schools to the table it used the most powerful weapon in its arsenal, and for the first time.    

A Muckraking Article

            OCR might never have acted were it not for a sensational story by the Chicago Tribune. “Betrayed” portrayed a district too disorganized to help its students after they had been sexually harassed by other students or by the district’s employees. Even more disturbing was its picture of teachers and staff admitting to perpetrating the misconduct but never facing serious discipline.

            When “Betrayed” ran, OCR had open investigations into two complaints of sexual harassment in Chicago’s schools. The article spurred federal officials to dig deeper. They found a litany of failure. Four times a day a Chicago schoolchild complained to the administration of sexual misconduct. The district had never had a full-time Title IX coordinator. The district’s lawyers both investigated employees for misconduct and defended the district in court. The more federal officials investigated, the more Chicago’s lack of cooperation frustrated them.

The Federal Government’s Patience Runs Out

OCR finally used its most powerful weapon. In September, 2018 the Department of Education told Chicago that it was suspending payment of $4 million out of $15 million it had granted to Chicago to develop magnet schools. It would release the money when Chicago agreed to fully comply with Title IX in the ways OCR specified. The district accused OCR of playing politics, but in the end it signed.

This was the first time the Department had used its power of the purse over a public-school district. When it outlawed sexual discrimination by recipients in 1973, Congress gave the Department the authority to withdraw the federal government’s money from them. Since then the Department had only needed persuasion to make schools and colleges follow its rules. If a district did lose money for tolerating student-on-student sexual harassment in school, it was because the victim had taken them to federal court.

The Department did not take back money that Chicago had already received. It only suspended an installment previously promised. Still, the threat worked.  

Will We See It Again?

Is this the start of a trend? On the one hand, this may have been a unique case. The federal government had much at stake. Chicago is the nation’s third largest public school district. In 2018 OCR had more complaints of sexual harassment from students in Chicago’s schools than from any other district. The Department had to set a precedent. 

On the other, the Department may start looking just as closely at sexual harassment in other school districts. in 2018 Secretary Devos proposed to enforce new rules for Title IX, and she invited the public to comment. The New York Times reports that the Secretary heard a chorus of support for closer regulation of schools. We may yet see OCR tighten its pursestrings for districts much smaller than Chicago’s.