SPRING BRANCH – As the list of teachers accused of having inappropriate relationships with students continues to grow, some worry school districts may be ignoring a federal law intended to help parents report sexual harassment.
That includes the type of complaint a Spring Branch mother made after learning her son was involved in a relationship with his eighth-grade teacher at Memorial Middle School.
“Sometime I wake up in the morning and I just go around and say, ‘Why is this happening to us?” this mom told the KHOU 11 News I-Team. We’re not using her name to protect her son’s identity.
She says she was the picture of an involved parent.
She volunteered with the school’s PTA and even moved her office into the family’s home to make sure she’d be there when her two boys came from class every afternoon.
“It couldn’t happen,” she lamented.
But it did.
Investigators said her 15-year-old son became the sexual target of his teacher, Kathryn Murray.
The teen’s mother felt betrayed.
“He’s supposed to be a child,” the mother said. “I don’t know if he’ll get over it, or if he will not. We don’t know.”
So who can a parent go to if they believe their child is being sexually harassed, or worse?
One option is the school’s Title IX Coordinator.
It’s a person specially trained to deal with sexual harassment complaints.
Federal law requires that every school have one and let students and staff know how to get in touch with the coordinator.
But the KHOU 11 News I-Team found getting that simple information may be a real struggle for a student or parent in distress.
We ‘tested’ more than 300 school principals, spread across 26 Houston-area school districts. We set up a private email mailbox, like any individual parent might have, then we sent the schools emails asking for contact information for each school’s Title IX coordinator adding, “I understand this is the person who handles sexual harassment complaints.”
Our email inbox soon filled up with some troubling answers.
“I think it’s a serious problem,” said Randy Burton, a former prosecutor who also founded the advocacy group “Justice for Children.”
Burton reviewed the responses we received.
The KHOU 11 News I-Team asked him whether or not those responses could be barriers to a parent trying to report their child has been sexually abused.
“That’s my fear,” said Burton. “That’s what it appears to me.”
For example, several principals told us, “We do not have a Title IX coordinator.”
Others seemed defensive, writing “What is this regarding?” or “I am not sure who you are looking for.”
In fact, only 61 schools provided us the information that we asked for.
A number of others didn’t even bother to respond to our request.
Take the Houston Independent School District.
Forty-five percent of the 112 principals we contacted there did not answer our email.
Jason Spencer, spokesman for the district, explained the principals’ reasoning.
“They chose not to respond because they were concerned it might be spam or that it might be potentially a virus,” Spencer said.
But even when we did get a response from HISD schools, in nearly every case, we didn’t get the Title IX coordinator.
Instead, we were told the school principal would handle the situation.
“We trust our principals to be able to be a front line in handling these kinds of investigations,” explained Spencer.
But Burton said that’s a bad idea.
He points to the recent case of former HISD school security guard Devin Delarosa who’s charged with fondling a student.
After Delarosa’s April arrest Harris County prosecutors said other students, dating back two years complained to their principal that they were groped by Delarosa too.
But those accusations were never passed on to the school district, or to police.
“Their rule one is protecting the children in their charge,” Burton said of principals. “To think that they would have any conflict that would interfere with that overarching goal is an outrage.”
HISD says the principal in that case broke policy, and added that based on the responses we received there could be changes coming to the district.
“We’ll go back and we’ll look at the training we do for our principals and the information we’re putting out,” Spencer said, “To make sure that we’re dotting our ‘i’s and crossing our ‘t’s because this is a significant issue.”
A significant issue that the Spring Branch mother warns could devastate any family.
“Fifteen months ago it was me,” she said. “Tomorrow it can be another parent, and what do you do about it?”
Another interesting response to our email came from Katy ISD.
Nine of the 12 principals we wrote to told us they handled any Title IX complaints, including one who said “If you have a sexual harassment concern it must come to me directly.”
At first, a Katy ISD spokesman told us that principal was correct.
But when we showed the spokesman the district’s written policy, the spokesman changed his story, admitting students and parents are allowed to report sexual harassment to the district’s Title IX coordinator.
That spokesman declined our repeated request for an on-camera interview.
Title IX compliance is handled by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
A spokesman for the department told the KHOU 11 News I-Team that between October 1, 2008 and September 30, 2012, the Office of Civil Rights conducted 17 compliance reviews involving K-12 school districts.
None of those reviews involved Texas school districts.