CMS to ‘beef up’ Title IX office to investigate sex misconduct allegations

CHARLOTTE — Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston on Friday morning outlined how the district will now deal with claims of sexual assaults on school campuses.

At a 9 a.m. news conference, Winston explained the action steps CMS will take to handle allegations of sexual misconduct, including “beefing up” support to the district’s Title IX office.

“As you all are aware, we launched a student-driven Title IX task force that is wrapping up its work, and I expect by the end of this month to receive a report with their recommendations, outlining how we can better improve our processes to provide better support for our students,” Winston said. “I am here today, in the meantime, to announce that we will be beefing up increasing support in our Title IX office to better support our students here in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.”

CMS has faced a lot of questions and criticism over how the district has handled -- or mishandled -- cases where students have reported sexual assaults. Most recently, a Hawthorne Academy sophomore told Channel 9 she reported being sexually assaulted on campus and said CMS punished her for filing a false report -- even though the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department charged a suspect.

>>Student explains role on local Title IX Task Force in the video below

She said CMS has since re-opened her complaint.

Two Myers Park High School students sued the school district for how it handled their sex assault cases. CMS then launched an investigation into former principal Mark Bosco but later cleared him in the case.

Bosco was reassigned and is working for the district in a new position.

“It is encouraging that this is the first tangible change that we have been promised,” former student Nikki Wombwell said.

Wombwell said she is glad to hear the school system acknowledges that there was a problem with the way officials have been treating students, including her.

She said it is frustrating that it took so long.

“This started in June and it’s been five months, and this is the first tangible change they’ve made,” Wombwell said.

Winston went on to say that CMS will be adding more personnel to the Title IX office and that the staff’s sole responsibility will be to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct at the school level.

“My goal is to take the responsibility of investigations of sexual misconduct allegations out of the hands of our school-level staff and put that with the additional staff that we will hire,” the superintendent said. “My goal is to create a greater level of consistency in how we handle reports of sexual misconduct throughout our district.”

Winston said that once he receives the student-driven Title IX task force report he will review it and share it with the Board of Education. He said he intends to make the report public.

The superintendent said CMS has not defined an exact number of positions that will be added to the Title IX office just yet.

“That work is ongoing,” Winston said. “But I will tell you that we have a commitment to fund these additional positions through the rest of this school year, and my expectation would be that these positions would be prioritized in our upcoming budget request that we make to Mecklenburg County.”

He said that adding the additional staff to CMS’ Title IX office will create a level of consistency across the district.

“My message to our families is that: We hear you. I hear you, and that we are committed to the well-being and safety of all of our students and staff in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,” Winston said. “We have an obligation, and that’s why we’re here today announcing that we’re going to increase the amount of staff in our Title IX office to help provide additional support for our students. I hear our families. I hear our students, and I want our students to continue to speak up about issues that they’re passionate about. We’re passionate about those issues as well.”

On Saturday, CMS students and alumni protested the treatment of sexual assaults on school campuses. They are demanding concrete action from the district following allegations of misconduct from multiple schools.

“It appears that CMS only feels the need to respond to these very serious issues after they perceive being backed into a corner from public outcry, and even then they do the bare minimum,” protester Serena Evans.

“We will not stop until policies at a district state and federal level properly protect their students and support survivors in the K-12 school system,” demonstrator Nikki Wombell.

The superintendent’s announcement drew a quick response from the attorney of the student at Hawthorne Academy who was suspended after she reported being sexually assaulted. Laura Dunn sent Channel the following statement:

Title IX regulation has required school districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) to designate one Title IX Coordinator to oversee compliance, including investigations into sexual misconduct complaints, since 1975.

Forty years later, in 2015, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found CMS out of compliance with this requirement (OCR Complaint No. 11-13-5002). Despite hiring Stephanie McKinney as the CMS Title IX Coordinator, upon information and belief, she has not been monitoring complaints or investigations into those complaints. This is partially why the Hawthorne Academy situation occurred.

Forty-six years later, CMS held a press conference today to announce that it will take one small step towards partial compliance with this provision. Though it is a helpful step to have properly trained and supervised investigators handling sexual misconduct complaints involving minor students, this is hardly the progress that the community needs after the systematic failures demonstrated within CMS under Title IX.

Of addition note, when ending the press conference, Superintendent Winston made a comment that he wants CMS students to keep “speaking up” about issues they care about. Implicit in this comment is neutrality about sexual misconduct. As well said by Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

I have not heard any commitment from CMS to end the “boys will be boys” attitude that has resulted in rampant sexual misconduct and officials silencing survivors through victim-blaming and retaliation. Title IX requires schools to prevent and address sexually hostile environments to ensure equal educational access for all students regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Superintendent Winston’s failure to ensure this basic civil rights-based commitment begs the question of whether he is qualified to continue to lead as the CMS Board faces growing outrage about the failure of district officials to properly handle reports of sexual violence by minor students.

Parents entrust their children to CMS every day. CMS must do much more than what it announced today to be worthy of that ongoing trust.

(WATCH BELOW: CMS student who reported sexual assault forced to attend “Sexual Harassment is Preventable” class)