NHCS expands sexual assault training for students and teachers, hires investigator

Updated: Jan. 21, 2021 at 3:03 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) has come a long way in its efforts to effectively deal with sexual assault, and it’s letting the public know about it.

NHCS formed a Title IX committee in the Spring of 2019, in the wake of public outcry over the sexual assault of students by their teachers that spanned over the course of decades. Parents and victims complained of systemic issues that allowed the abuse to continue for years after they say it could have and should have been stopped.

The Title IX coordinator at the time, Assistant Superintendent Rick Holliday, was implicated in the alleged cover up that allowed the abuse to go unchecked. He has since retired, and the New Hanover County School Board created a new position for a Title IX coordinator who will not have divide their attention on any other duties. NHCS hired Jarelle Lewis for that job.

On Thursday, Lewis took part in a Zoom call with the media to announce new training programs being offered for students and teachers, and to announce the hiring of a Title IX investigator who will work exclusively on Title IX complaints filed within the school system. In the fall, NHCS hired John Henry, a retired military colonel with a wealth of experience as an attorney responding to sexual assault claims within the military, to fill that position.

Also on the Zoom call was Kristin Jackson, the director of student support services for the district. She spoke about programming already being offered or in the works for all students in the school system. The exact instruction varies by grade level.

Jackson said that this week, they are launching a new prevention program called Bringing in the Bystander for high school students. It will be embedded into the health and PE curriculum for high school students, focusing on dating violence and sexual assault. Two highly-trained Coastal Horizon Rape Crisis counselors have been contracted to teach this five-day, 90-minute program.

As part of the district-wide training program, teachers are also getting instruction through the Darkness into Light program. Teachers are learning how to recognize warning signs that an adult may be abusing a child. They’re also being taught best practices, like not to have the door closed when they are alone in the classroom with a student, and what to do if a child discloses that they have been the victim of a sexual assault.

“It gives them the vocabulary to use with the student at that minute,” Jackson explained. “Somebody tells us something and we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ What we don’t want to do is overreact. So, it gives them the vocabulary of telling them that they’re brave. Thank you for coming forward. I’m going to help you through this.”

In addition to teaching teachers what to say to their students, teachers are also being reminded about mandatory reporting laws. Teachers are required to report suspected abuse of a student to law enforcement and the Department of Social Services. Amy Feath, a child abuse expert from the Carousel Center, is working with NHCS for a successful roll out of the these new Title IX initiatives. She was on the call and wanted to remind the public that all adults - not just teachers - are bound by new mandatory reporting laws.

“For us, it’s really important for it to not be glossed over about mandatory reporting law. Any adult in North Carolina, if you know or suspect that a child under the age of 18 has either been physically or sexually abused, you are required by this new State Bill 199 to report it to both law enforcement and DSS, because there are two avenues for justice for a child and their family should something have occurred,” Feath said.

For children at the middle school level, the Shifting Boundaries program that’s been available at some schools for several years is now available to all sixth grade students, and will soon be part of the ninth grade curriculum as well. The instruction involves dating violence, flirting vs. hurting, and other topics suitable for their age range.

Children at the elementary level will receive instruction too, but that roll out has been pushed back to the fall because so much classroom instruction this year has been remote. Parents will have to opt in for their child to receive the Safer Smarter Kids training.

“It’s an empowerment program,” Jackson explained. “It does talk about your trusted circle, and you know, that funny feeling in your stomach if someone makes you feel a certain way, and how to get help and those sorts of things. That’s a K-5 program. Because it’s such a delicate subject, we were going to start this year but it’s really a program that needs to be done face to face. Not over Zoom.”

Overall, reports of Title IX violations have been down this school year because in-person schooling has been curtailed by the pandemic. Lewis said the complaints they have received pertain mostly to cyber bullying and harassment that has occurred while students have attended school online.

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