BSD signs settlement with U.S. Department of Justice

Photo: Courtesy Burlington School District

Photo: Courtesy Burlington School District

Julia Shannon-Grillo

The Burlington School District (BSD) has entered into a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Attorney for Vermont, in response to peer-on-peer harassment based on sex, according to records obtained by The Register.

According to the case summary, the settlement seeks “to resolve an investigation into allegations of sex discrimination” at the Sustainability Academy (SA), one of Burlington’s six elementary schools. The settlement extends through the 2021-2022 school year, the records note.

The summary says the initial investigation was in response to a complaint by a group of parents “alleging that their children had been subject to severe and pervasive sex-based harassment, including assault, that went unaddressed by the District.”

Title IV, Civil Rights Act of 1964. Image:

Assistant U.S. Attorney and Civil Division Chief Julia Torti noted that when Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is violated, it is not the student, or students, accused of harassment who is prosecuted.

“[If] a student bullies or harasses another child, we don’t look at whether the student, the harassing student, violated federal law. We’re really concerned with the school and the school’s response,” Torti said.

It is unclear how or when the complaint was filed and made its way to the DOJ. The dates of the harassment incident and the initial complaint by parents are not included in the agreement or the summary. However, according to Torti, these investigations last “at least a number of months,” if not longer.

Complaints can come to the U.S. Attorney’s office via a number of routes, but they are only investigated if they are believed to be true. Torti said investigations into a school are a comprehensive evaluation of the school’s responses to comparable cases of peer-on-peer harassment.

“We don’t often look at a single incident. We usually look at how the school has responded to a series of similar incidents, as a way of concluding whether the law was violated,” Torti said. 

At the end of an investigation, the DOJ determines whether or not the District violated federal law. If it concludes that the law was violated, the DOJ approaches the District with a settlement agreement proposal.

The terms of this particular agreement published on the United States Department of Justice website mandates an assessment of Burlington School District policies, systems, and procedures relating to harassment and bullying incidents. Once evaluated, training programs and related materials will be put in place for all employees. In addition, all district employees will receive clarification on how to interpret FERPA, the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act, the agreement notes. 

SA has terms particular to the school. Semi-annual climate surveys will be sent to parents, students, and employees.  The district will “provide separate and particularized training for the principal of Sustainability Academy that addresses the concerns raised by the United States about the school’s response to incidents of sex-based bullying and harassment.”  

The Superintendent must appoint a District Nondiscrimination Coordinator (DNC) within 90 days of entering the agreement, presumably by February 13th. Though The Register has not obtained an official job description, the settlement agreement states that the DNC will:

  1. “Monitor compliance with this Agreement”
  2. “Coordinate the District’s submission of reports to the United States”
  3. “Ensure consistency of all District-wide and school-level policies, trainings, and related materials regarding nondiscrimination, harassment, and bullying”
  4. “Provide and publicize updated information on a period basis to all administrators, faculty, staff, students and parents/guardians on the District’s policies and related materials”
  5. “Ensure that all public materials are up-to-date” 

The Mid-Atlantic Equity Center (MAEC), one of four federally funded Equity Assistance Centers, will provide technical assistance to the District as the District makes efforts to comply with the agreement. Torti could not speak to how to MAEC will monitor progress, but she said the DOJ makes an effort to be “on the ground” in districts.

“We’re mindful that you can have the most well-written policies in the world, but if they’re not being followed then discrimination can still be happening and federal law can still be violated,” Torti said. 

The agreement states that the MAEC had to submit the results of a district-wide review of all “practices and procedures related to sex-based discrimination, harassment, bullying, and student discipline, as well as all related materials,” on Dec. 2.  This assessment report includes recommendations for policy changes at the school and District level.  

In turn, the District had to submit a written Resource Plan outlining what additional resources are needed to fulfill the terms of the agreement, also on Dec. 2. By Jan. 13, 2020, the District must submit proposed policy and practice revisions, based on the MAEC’s recommendations.

The settlement agreement was reached on Nov. 13, 2019.

Efforts to contact BSD School Board Chair Clare Wool and Superintendent Yaw Obeng were unsuccessful at this time.