Sexual harassment survey given to NHCS middle, high school students makes national headlines

Some parents felt questions school administrators asked their children were not age-appropriate
Sexual harassment survey given to NHCS middle, high school students makes national headlines
Published: May. 2, 2022 at 4:01 PM EDT
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - New Hanover County School leaders are responding to criticism about a survey they conducted polling students on their experience with sexual harassment. The district wanted to get a better grasp on how often students were experiencing harassment in the wake of a teacher sex scandal that put several teachers in the district behind bars, accused of making inappropriate sexual advances towards their students.

NHCS sent out surveys to all high school and middle school students in the fall of 2021. After defining sexual harassment at the beginning of the survey, students were asked if they’d ever been sexually harassed, how often they’d been harassed, and if they’d reported the harassment to a trusted adult within the school system. The survey also asked students to identify their gender, and provided seven possible options: female, male, transgender female, transgender male, non-binary/genderqueer/gender fluid, two spirit, or prefer not to answer.

The district completed the survey in November of 2021, and received survey results in February 2022. Administrators sent emails and automated phone calls to parents in the weeks before the survey, alerting parents of plans to administer it. But despite those efforts, many parents were still unaware their children had taken this survey when it recently became a topic of discussion with some national news outlets.

The survey was discussed on Glenn Beck’s Glenn TV program late last month, in an episode called Project Groomer: Exposing the Secret Plan to Brainwash Your Kids. Then, Roland-Grise Middle School parent Chelsea Cooley appeared on the Candace Owens show to voice concerns that her daughter, who is 12, had been asked questions about her gender identity, and that the survey discussed pornography and other topics of an adult nature.

“The content of the survey to me is inappropriate for any child that is a minor,” Cooley explained, saying she would like to be the one to explain such sensitive topics to her daughter, rather than someone in the school system who may not share her beliefs. “[My daughter] took it and had no clue as to what it was in reference to. So she’s answering a survey that she doesn’t understand.”

School board members unanimously approved conducting the survey on May 19, 2021, after reviewing the questions at the very end of a three and a half hour school board meeting. Even though the meeting was conducted in public, and video of the meeting is posted on the school board’s website, many parents missed it. School Board Member Stephanie Walker, who sat on the Title IX committee that developed the survey, said she felt blindsided by the unflattering national media coverage.

“I won’t lie, I was pretty upset about it. I received [a link to the Candace Owens story] from a family member out of town. And I thought, you know, I watched it at length. And I didn’t feel like it was accurate. I didn’t feel like it told the whole story,” Walker explained. Walker felt like the politically charged topic of gender identity overshadowed the true purpose of the survey.

“The history [of sexual abuse connected to New Hanover County Schools], that is one of the main reasons that we did this climate survey. It was anonymous. It was to... let the community know that we cared and that we really wanted to make sure that we knew, you know, we weren’t missing anything. And that we didn’t want any things to repeat from history.... And we want to obviously make sure that we are doing our part to, you know, to reach the students that need it the most,” Walker added.

Even though NHCS advertised the survey in advance, Cooley said it wasn’t easy to get a copy of the survey once she voiced her concerns. A school spokesperson said they made copies available for review upon request, but they didn’t want to publish the survey or distribute copies for fear it could skew the survey results. The survey does give kids the chance to opt out.

“Due to the potentially sensitive nature of these survey questions, students that feel overwhelmed or impacted by questions are encouraged to stop the survey and seek available support resources,” the survey reads.

The results of the survey were disclosed in a public meeting in February, and some of the findings are eye opening.

8,046 students took the survey, which is 62% of the student population enrolled in NHCS middle and high schools. 22% of middle school students who completed the survey reported experiencing sexual harassment within the last year. 27% of high schoolers said they experienced sexual harassment. However, only a quarter of middle school students who reported experiencing harassment told a trusted adult in the school system, and the percentage of students who reported the harassment to their school was even lower in the high school population.

Walker said one of the main reason they decided to ask questions about gender identity is that LGBTQ+ students frequently experience harassment, and are especially vulnerable. Six percent of the students who completed the survey identified as something other than “male” or “female.”

“We can’t ignore the gender based part of that as well. I think over half of our LGBTQ+ students feel very harassed. And we know the high suicide rates for this population. And, you know, we want to make sure that we’re supporting them the best we can,” Walker explained.

While it wasn’t the intent of the survey to expose adolescent children to adult subject matter, Walker is a parent herself, and says she can appreciate the tough position this put parents like Cooley in when it comes to trying to protect their children’s innocence.

“There’s definitely discussions to be had about how we can do it better,” Walker said.

New Hanover County School Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill, who also chairs the Title IX committee, released the following statement in response to the controversy:

“The Title IX survey was a priority of the Title IX Committee last year.  The Committee  and the entire Board of Education was very thoughtful and deliberate in the development, approval, and rollout of the survey.  The survey development enlisted the knowledge and expertise of key community partners to use age-appropriate and gender-inclusive language for the questions and all possible responses.  Safety of students was always at the forefront of our discussions.  Preventing and protecting students from sexual and gender-based harassment, bullying, and misconduct was the number one desired outcome of the survey.

Another integral part of the conversation was keeping parents informed throughout the process.  A layered approach was used:  multiple Title IX Committee meetings and Board meetings, all recorded; Connect-5 calls with associated emails inviting parents to a Zoom meeting to review and discuss questions about the survey;  the Zoom Parent meeting itself; and having the survey available at the schools for parents to review and ask questions in real time of administrators and counselors about the survey.

Students took the survey anonymously through an independent third party administrator who collected and collated the data.  Students were able to decline taking the survey, skip questions, and to stop taking the survey anytime.  They were given the option to respond “I don’t know/understand” and/or “I don’t want to answer” on most questions.  Teachers who supervised the administration of the survey did not answer questions about the survey during the survey.

The results of the Title IX survey as reported by the third party survey administrator are posted in Simbli under the February 2022 Interim meeting and are in the process of also being shared on the district’s Title IX webpage.  The district is continuing to analyze the survey results to determine how best to strengthen programming and communication outlets for our students.”

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