More than 14 percent of the students who responded to Fairfax County’s annual youth survey say they experienced sexual harassment in the past year.
Published on the county’s website on Sept. 25, the 2017-2018 Fairfax County Youth Survey found that 14.2 percent of students reported being sexually harassed in the past year, an increase of a full percentage point from the 13.2 percent in the survey issued during the 2016-2017 school year.
Female students are three times more likely than male students to report experiencing sexual harassment as 20.8 percent of girls said they had been harassed compared to 7.3 percent of boys.
As has been the case in previous years, the prevalence of sexual harassment increased with the grade level, ranging from 12.9 percent for 8th grade students to 15.8 percent for 12th grade students.
Also consistent with prior surveys, Asian students were least likely to say they had been sexually harassed, reporting at a rate of 9.9 percent, while students who identified as “other” or belonging to multiple races or ethnicities were most likely to report that they had been sexually harassed in the past year.
While 85.8 percent of all students said they had never been sexually harassed, 7.9 percent of respondents reported experiencing one or two incidents in the past year, and 0.8 percent of respondents said they had been sexually harassed 40 or more times.
3.1 percent of surveyed Fairfax County students overall, including 5 percent of all 12th graders, reported having been physically forced to have sexual intercourse at some point in their lifetimes.
This is the 13th time that Fairfax County has conducted an annual survey, a practice that started in 2001 in an effort to “monitor the behaviors and attitudes that affect the health and well-being of Fairfax County youth,” according to the survey’s introduction.
The county says the survey’s data on topics like aggressive behavior, substance use, and nutrition is used by county, school, and community-based organizations to assess youth strengths and needs, develop programs and services, monitor trends, measure community indicators, and guide countywide planning for prevention efforts.
Co-sponsored by the Fairfax County School Board and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, the survey was administered to 48,225 Fairfax County Public Schools students, representing 86 percent of all enrolled students, in November 2017.
The survey received valid responses from 33,238 eighth, 10th, and 12th grade students. A separate survey for sixth-grade students drew 12,247 valid responses.
The 2017-2018 Fairfax County Youth Survey’s findings related to sexual harassment are largely in line with data from previous surveys, but they come at a time when concerns about sexual assault and harassment have become amplified in the wake of recent allegations against cultural figures like Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and political leaders, including former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who resigned last December, and President Donald Trump.
FCPS has drawn scrutiny over the past year for its handling of sexual misconduct allegations from students.
Reports that Lake Braddock Secondary School head girls varsity basketball coach John Giannelli subjected players to sexual harassment and a generally hostile environment led to the coach’s resignation in March 2016.
A complaint filed by the parent of a former Lake Braddock basketball player alleging that school and FCPS leaders failed to address Giannelli’s behavior despite student reports triggered a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in November 2017, prompting Lake Braddock Principal Dave Thomas to retire on Feb. 2.
The Fairfax County School Board became the subject of a lawsuit on May 23 when the nonprofit Public Justice filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court on behalf of an Oakton High School student and her family.
The student alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by a male student during a band trip to Indiana on Mar. 8, 2017, but even after the incident was reported by multiple students, school officials reportedly did not contact her until five days later when she was called in to talk to Oakton’s director of student services and safety and security specialist; who both challenged her story and discouraged her from taking legal action, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit argued that school officials’ allegedly dismissive and retaliatory handling of the student’s sexual assault claim violated the Education Amendments of 1972’s Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.
FCPS announced on May 30 that it had appointed Pine Spring Elementary School Principal Armando Peri as its new family and student ombudsman, a position that includes being the district’s Title IX coordinator among its responsibilities.
When the school board reconvened after a summer break on Sept. 27, at-large member Ryan McElveen introduced a resolution on sexual misconduct that denounced “unwelcome sexual behavior, physical interactions, statements, or online exchanges by students or school system personnel.”
The resolution called on the school board to “lead a cultural change in Fairfax County Public Schools regarding sexual misconduct to ensure that the organization continues to foster a caring culture, encourage open communication, properly educate and train students and employees, and hold accountable those who fail to uphold our standards of conduct and reporting.”
Approved 11-0 by the board with Springfield District Representative Elizabeth Schultz abstaining, the resolution stated that FCPS will continue periodically conducting anonymous surveys to determine how to focus educational and prevention resources in addition to requiring education on sexual misconduct prevention for both students and employees.
“The journey and introspection that brings us here today has not been easy,” McElveen said. “Our system has been faced with situations where people have been physically and emotionally hurt, and subsequently have been forced to carry that hurt with them throughout their lives…We owe it to everyone who has ever been affected by sexual misconduct to have this conversation.”
FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand told the school board that staff should be able to deliver a report on actions that FCPS is already undertaking to address sexual misconduct concerns and ones the school system will take to uphold the resolution before schools close for winter break.
According to board chair and Mount Vernon District Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders, the school board will host a forum discussion on Oct. 11 centered on the new employee rights and responsibilities manual.
Brabrand has also committed to holding a discussion of the protocols for Title IX later this fall, Corbett-Sanders says.
“It’s an issue that every member of this board has expressed concerns about, for the need to be more public about the work that is being done and the work that needs to be done by the school system,” Corbett-Sanders said. “…This is the beginning of a more public discussion of many of the conversations we’ve had in light of closed sessions and elsewhere.”