Update: U.S. Department of Education, Rhinelander School District agree to resolve complaint
4 P.M. July 6: UPDATED WITH COMMENT FROM SUPERINTENDENT
By Eileen Persike
RHINELANDER – The School District of Rhinelander has agreed to resolve a complaint filed against it with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. The agreement ensures the compliance with Title IX when responding to harassment based on gender identity.
OCR enforces Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681- 1688, and its implementing regulation at 34 C.F.R. Part 106, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity operated by a recipient of federal financial assistance. As a recipient of federal financial assistance from the Department, the District is subject to Title IX.
According to a press release from OCR released today, during the 2021-22 school year, a nonbinary student and their parent reported to the district that students repeatedly mocked and targeted the student during multiple classes, while multiple teachers repeatedly used incorrect pronouns for the student and one teacher removed the student from class on the ground the teacher could not protect the student from harassment by other students.
OCR also states it viewed video recording of students bumping into the harassed student in the hallways. Other evidence shows other students called the student a derogatory slur for LGBTQ+ people.
In a statement to the Star Journal, School District of Rhinelander Superintendent Eric Burke said through the resolution agreement the district will provide additional training to students and staff on discrimination, harassment and bullying.
“We continuously provide training to our students and staff, so agreeing to provide more training was a commitment we have already embraced,” said Burke. “The District is committed to providing a safe environment for all students.”
The district responded to these allegations, according to OCR, by changing the student’s schedule to attend school in-person for only three classes and to take additional classes through independent study.
“Based on the evidence in the investigation to date, OCR is concerned that the district response to the persistent harassment limited the student’s participation in school activities. Additionally, the information produced in the investigation does not reflect the district taking steps to ensure the student’s equal access to education with their peers.”
Other concerns OCR has about SDR include miscoding records as “peer mistreatment” instead of sex-based harassment, lack of documentation of complaints and inadequately documented district responses. Additionally, the SDR Title IX coordinator reported she was unaware of reports of sex-based harassment of the student until after the complainant filed with OCR.
“Congress promises every student a right to fully participate in educational programs without harassment based on sex. Rhinelander School District has now committed to take steps to ensure that promise of equal access to education for all its students,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon.
Per the U.S. Department of Education press release this afternoon, the district’s commitments in the voluntary resolution agreement include:
• Evaluating whether compensatory services or other services are necessary for the harassed student due to the instructional time the student missed when attending in-person classes on an only part-time basis.
• Providing training to all district administrators and staff regarding the district’s obligation, in compliance with Title IX, to respond to complaints of sex-based harassment.
• Providing age-appropriate information programs for students to address sex-based harassment, including what students should do if they believe they or other students have experienced such harassment. And,
• Conducting a climate survey to assess the prevalence of sex-based harassment and obtain suggestions for effective ways to address harassment.
“Through the resolution agreement,” Superintendent Burke added, “the District committed to providing a benefit to all students instead of fighting over the merit of the allegations in the complaint.”
Burke also noted the student is no longer attending the School District of Rhinelander and the family moved out of state more than one year ago.
The resolution in its entirety is available here.