Advocate Says Anti-Harassment Law Enforcement Falling Short

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(Host) An advocate for diversity in Vermont schools says enforcement of the state’s anti-harassment law is falling short in many parts of the state.

Curtiss Reed says school superintendents should be penalized if they fail to arrange independent reviews of an incident, when a family requests it.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) State law sets out a timeline for schools dealing with harassment allegations on the basis race, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and other protected categories.

The five-year-old law requires an investigation of any alleged harassment to begin within 24 hours of the complaint.

It calls for written reports to the parents of students involved, explaining the findings and the disciplinary action, if the claim is confirmed.

Among other things, the law allows parents to request an independent review, if they’re not satisfied with how an incident was handled.

Curtiss Reed Jr. explains.

(Reed) "There are seven or eight independent reviewers in the state that have been specially trained by the Vermont Human Rights Commission and the Department of Education and these individuals will come in and review all the records, they’ll review the process, they’ll review policies and procedures and to what degree those were followed or not."

(Keese) Reed chairs the Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

He’s also the executive director of the Brattleboro-based Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. The group works with parents and schools on diversity issues.

Reed says enforcement of the law around the state is spotty.

He says the biggest problems have involved schools dragging their feet on requests by parents for independent reviews.

(Reed) "School personnel try to dissuade the parent from requesting the review, or simply outright be not cooperative to do the review at all."

(Keese) Recently Reed told the State Board of Education that his group has worked in ten supervisory union school districts where parents encountered resistance on this issue.

He was moved to speak out last month when the parent of an honor student moved out of state because of frustration with a climate of harassment at her school. Reed said the family had asked for an independent review a year earlier, but that nothing had been done.

(Reed) "And what’s disturbing about that is this may be the only vehicle whereby the school can learn where it needs to improve how it handles harassment."

(Keese) The independent review can’t overturn an individual school’s decision on a harassment case.

But it can offer suggestions for following the law, and recommend the school take another look.

Reed says superintendents who fail to provide the requested reviews should have their licenses revoked.

Fayneese Miller, who chairs of the State Board of Education, says it’s premature for the board to take a position until it’s looked at the data.

(Miller) "What we can do at this point is to ask the Department of Education to do a study determining whether or not violation of the law is in fact occurring. I can simply say that those of us on the board are not supportive of any negative treatment or slow investigations that might occur."

(Keese) A spokesman for the Vermont Department of Education says the department follows up on all complaints about the law’s enforcement. He says he’s not aware of a significant problem around the state.

The department’s general counsel will discuss the issue with the state board at its meeting Tuesday.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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