Horrific stories of student abuse create call to action, sometimes in ways that aren’t helpful
Monday, March 15, 2021
Sometimes students are victims of sexual conduct or assault in school, either by adults or other students. These traumatic stories drive legislators to consider policies to better protect students, but some proposals would generate lawsuits without helping students.
Starting in 2016, the story of alleged abuse by Portland Public Schools former employee Mitch Whitehurst drew attention statewide. After a districtwide reckoning, PPS, OSBA and other education stakeholders advocated for enhanced student protections in the law.
The Legislature responded and enacted Senate Bill 155. It extended broad prohibitions for the first time against sexual conduct by all education provider employees, coaches, volunteers, agents and contractors toward all students. Importantly, it expanded the ability to record allegations of inappropriate actions by potentially dangerous employees. OSBA helped draft SB 155 and was a strong supporter.
This week, the Senate Education Committee will hold a hearing on SB 242, a follow-up bill to SB 155. It would allow better implementation of the SB 155 requirements, including enabling enhanced records-sharing, making sure student-employees are appropriately handled, and adding education service district board members to the Oregon mandatory reporters list.
These changes are aimed at further protecting students by making sure SB 155 works well. Like SB 155, OSBA helped draft SB 242 and will likely support the bill in the hearing.
Last week, other legislative committees considered bills that also grapple with sexual assault in schools but without adding protections for students. House Bill 2546 would give new causes of action against school districts that are out of compliance with sexual discrimination laws and policies. SB 409 would expand existing sexual conduct requirements to private schools and would allow new lawsuits against public and private schools and individuals that fail to adhere to these requirements.
Both bills were brought by legislators on behalf of students who said they were victims of sexual assault. In two separate public hearings last week, the young people told horrific stories of assault by other students. These students were joined by other survivors of school-based sexual assault.
Although all would agree these students deserve support, it does not appear either of these bills would have helped the victims.
New lawsuits seem like a powerful tool, but multiple rights of action already exist.
Courtney Westling, PPS director of government relations, testifying against the bill, suggested that it would be better to expand existing laws and enforcement mechanisms, including “laws related to sexual harassment applied to public education (ORS 342.700 to 342.708), a harassment, intimidation and bullying law that applies to public education (ORS 339.351 to 339.364), and a teen dating violence and domestic violence law (339.366 to 339.368).”
In live testimony on HB 2546 and written testimony on SB 409, committees heard a similar message from OSBA. Accountability measures in recent sessions have led to change and “perhaps the committee should consider expanding the applicability of these existing laws,” OSBA submitted.
Lawsuits cost school districts time and money without addressing the dangers to students. Lawsuits also create a perverse incentive to cover up questionable actions to avoid further legal costs. Instead, OSBA supports creating laws that criminalize bad behavior and give school leaders the tools to root out problem employees.
Schools are supposed to be safe for students, but the sad truth is that sometimes students are victims of sexual assault. As these infrequent but devastating cases drive legislative policy discussions, OSBA seeks to keep the focus on making changes that keep students safe.