Typically, there are two responses to sexual assault and harassment on a school campus: the administrative response and the student services response. The administrative response has numerous guidelines on how to handle and punish the harmer, according to the code of conduct and disciplinary actions the school system has in place.
The student services response is less defined and varies depending on who is working with the student. Currently, there is no unified protocol to guide how the survivor is given support for the CHCCS district, which some think leaves room for bias and anxiety for both teachers and students.
The main issue with not having a sexual assault and harassment protocol is the unorganization of the response, which leaves students and teachers at risk. All teachers aren’t trained on how to work with and provide support for a sexually-assaulted student and could potentially make the situation worse. Schools who follow the same protocol typically have less room for error and unorganization, and can better help survivors.
“We work with a lot of students from the school system who have experienced sexual assault, some of whom reported it to their schools and some of whom didn’t, and so part of our job is helping them navigate what some of their opinions are and what their resources are,” said Rachel Valentine, the director of Orange County Rape Crisis. “And sometimes we find that the school system has done what they should have done and sometimes we find that they haven’t.”
Four years ago, the Orange County Rape Crisis Center (OCRCC) invited social workers and counselors to join a county-wide committee run by the OCRCC called the sexual assault response team. The team is made up of people who work at places where a sexual assault or harassment survivor might go to like the police, hospital staff, DSS agents and religious figures. At one meeting, the social workers and counselors were asked to describe the sexual assault and harassment protocols at their schools and found that they all handled them differently.
“I was asked to serve on the Orange County Sexual Assault Response Team several years ago. During my first meeting, various agencies were discussing their sexual assault response protocols, and I thought ‘wow, CHCCS doesn’t have one.’ This sparked an idea to create one. I talked with our liaison at Lincoln Center at the time, and we put together a team of local professionals who worked over a period of about six months to create the first ever Sexual Assault and Harassment Response
Protocol for CHCCS,” said Lisa DeCesaris, the Director of Student Services, in an email interview.
The team convened a group of diverse and representative officials. Over the course of a year, the group formulated a protocol that provided the best practices for trauma informed care. Trauma informed care practices focus on treating a person while taking into account the person’s past trauma and their resulting coping mechanisms. After creating the protocol, they took it to the Title IX officer for Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, whose job it is to protect people from discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity in public school systems.
The committee shared the protocol with the superintendent, social workers’ meetings, counselors’ meetings, the principals’ meeting and the Safeschools committee. The school district restructured their student services branch and created a new position called the Director of Student Services, which is in charge of approving new protocols and practices. After two years, the protocol is still waiting to be approved and run by lawyers.
“We want everybody; we want particularly our social workers and counselors, to feel really competent and really confident that they know what to do in these situations because it allows them to be more present, and…to actually provide better care if they aren’t second guessing that they’re going to get in trouble for doing it this way or…that way,” said Rachel Valentine. “When there’s a protocol and everybody knows what they are supposed to do, the anxiety level goes down, and it allows people to be more human and be more present with survivors which is what survivors really need.”
To better give students the support they need, many believe that teachers should also be given the proper training, as well as principals and especially vice principals. Vice principals are in charge of the investigative and punishment side of the process, making it useful for them to understand how the student services process works in order to better do their job.
However, the school board has yet to approve the protocol. Without the proper motivation or reminder of the protocol’s existence, it won’t be put in place, leaving schools in Orange County with widely different ways of handling a very sensitive and impactful topic.