New Education Secretary Must Prioritize K-12 Sexual Assault Survivors

Unlike his predecessor who has never served in public education, Miguel Cardona has been a public school educator for his entire professional career.

[Photo: Dr. Miguel Cardona, US President-Elect Joe Biden's nominee for Education Secretary, speaks during an event.]
Miguel Cardona, the Connecticut commissioner of education, has been nominated to serve as the education secretary for the Biden administration. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

When my friends and I were sexually harassed in high school, we were completely unaware of our rights under Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. If our school’s anti-harassment policies had been more accessible and transparent, we could have gotten the support that we needed.

Our lack of knowledge was not unique—it’s shared by countless other K-12 student survivors across the country.

With a new administration coming in soon, we’re hopeful that it can make a difference.

Last month, President-elect Joe Biden nominated Miguel Cardona to be his secretary of education. Cardona is currently the Connecticut commissioner of education, a role he has held since the summer of 2019. Unlike his predecessor, Betsy DeVos, who has never served in public education, Cardona has been a public school educator for his entire professional career. Biden has committed to overturning Secretary DeVos’ anti-survivor Title IX regulations, which made it easier for schools to sweep violence under the rug. These efforts may take anywhere from “two months to two years,” according to HuffPost.

But if Cardona wants to correct the damage done by his predecessor and ensure no student is pushed out of school because of sexual violence, he must prioritize K-12 student survivors.

While Biden positioned himself as a champion for the movement against campus sexual violence during the Obama administration, little attention was paid to the high rates of violence and discrimination in K-12 schools. One in three teens have been victims of dating violence, and almost half of rape victims were assulted before the age of 18. This violence and the ensuing trauma can have devastating impacts on survivors’ education and lifetime success.

But very few students—and even schools—are aware of survivors’ rights under Title IX. When drafting new Title IX regulations, the next Department of Education must meet with K-12 student survivor groups and gain their input to ensure their unique needs are met by future Title IX enforcement.

Many K-12 schools have not ensured that all their students have access to an educational environment free from gender violence, either because of a lack of resources or lack of empathy––or both. Since 2018, at least 330 lawsuits have been filed against K-12 school districts for mishandling incidents of sexual misconduct and denying students adequate protection.

Navigating Title IX as a K-12 survivor can be difficult because of unclear policies and lack of knowledge about legal protections. Survivors often hesitate to reach out for help due to fear of punishment or retaliation. Unfortunately, their fears are not unfounded. Many schools devote their institutional power to persecuting survivors for asserting their civil rights. Schools have blatantly ignored survivors’ reports of sexual violence, expelled them for asking for help, or denied them basic protections that would help them stay safe in school. These actions often force survivors to transfer to another institution or begin homeschooling.

For example, in 2019, a Philadelphia mom filed a lawsuit against the school district for failing to take action to keep her daughter safe from physical, verbal, and sexual harassment—even after classmates ripped out her hair and scratched her face with scissors. Because of their inaction, her child was forced to withdraw from the school and transfer.

As a result of this retaliation and persecution, K-12 student survivors lose valuable classroom time and are pushed out of the classroom while their harassers’ educational experience remains uninterrupted.

As secretary of education, Cardona will have an opportunity to champion policies that protect young survivors—such as a concerted Title IX education and awareness campaign in K-12 schools; a requirement that every K-12 school have a designated and defined Title IX coordinator and a confidential victim advocate to assist the survivor through the reporting process; restorative justice options for survivors; and policies that shield students from retaliation and pushout.

K-12 student survivors deserve a safe educational environment where they can develop their academic and extracurricular interests. Only by crafting Title IX and sexual violence policies with K-12 survivors in mind can the Department of Education provide an educational environment where all students can flourish.