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Haywood schools to adopt new complaint policy

Haywood County Schools Title IX Coordinator Jason Heinz recently discussed policy changes that must go into effect by Aug. 14 in order to adhere to new Title IX regulation set forth by the U.S. Department of Education.

Among the changes is one consolidated process for dealing with harassment complaints between teachers or students. Previously, complaints between staff members would be handled under a different procedure than complaints between students. Now, all parties are treated equally, and complaints between two employees, two students, or an employee and a student will all follow the same procedure. 

The procedure following a complaint has also been updated to include more people in the process. Previously, the Title IX coordinator, the human resources director in the case of Haywood County Schools, would handle all complaints. This meant the coordinator would hear the formal complaint, investigate the situation, write the report and provide that to the superintendent. 

Now, the complaint can be reported to any school system employee, as every employee is considered a representative of the district, not just the Title IX coordinator. 

“It just gives students, parents and employees more avenues to tell someone that they trust, or someone that they’re comfortable talking to about something like that. It is a little intimidating when you have to go see the Title IX coordinator to report something to some people,” said Heinz. 

Under the new regulation, after the complaint has been lodged, the Title IX coordinator takes the complaint to the superintendent and the superintendent will appoint someone to investigate. The investigator can no longer be the Title IX coordinator. 

“This is good because I would coordinate the whole process, but I am not doing the investigation,” said Heinz. 

The investigator can be any administrator in the district, including the principal at the school where the incident occurred. After the investigation, the superintendent receives all the information gathered and makes a decision. The decision can be appealed by the district board of education. 

“That’s a better system in our opinion,” said Heinz. “It has more people looking at it, it has more people involved, you don’t have just one person’s opinion talking to the superintendent.” 

Another change to the regulations places the burden on the complainant to inform the school that harassment is taking place. Schools cannot be held liable if a student or employee did not inform a district representative of harassment. 

“That’s why they broadened who is responsible if they’re told,” said Heinz. “Because now they may mention that to a coach, they could mention that to their favorite teacher, they could talk to their counselor, it doesn’t have to be me. That would count as an informal complaint and now we would be responsible for an investigation.” 

Heinz said that not much will change as far as how people are treated, the biggest change is how an investigation would proceed. 

“We take these things very seriously, and we always look into anything that we think is a problem,” he said. “For our procedures, not much will change because we’ve been doing this all along anyway. It just changes the legality of who’s responsible if something did go to court.” 

The board tabled the policy changes until its next meeting to give the public a chance to comment. 

Both the State of New York and the ACLU have filed lawsuits against the new Title IX regulations for, among other reasons, the narrowing of the definition of sexual harassment as well as the new standard of sex discrimination and how it differs from discrimination based on race or national origin. A lawsuit filed by the National Women’s Law Center takes issue with increased protections for those accused of sexual misconduct in higher education, including newly required live hearings. 

Under the new regulations the definition of sexual harassment changes from “so severe, pervasive, or objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the school’s education program or activity” to “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the school’s education program or activity.” Department guidance on racial harassment uses a “severe, pervasive or persistent” standard. (Italics added)

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