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Sexual assaults were mishandled in Detroit schools under emergency management. Here’s what’s changed.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti interviewed for the job on March 30, 2017.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti interviewed for the job on March 30, 2017.
Erin Einhorn

Detroit’s main district has made substantial changes to how it handles sexual assault allegations, putting an end to the patchwork approach that prevailed under state-appointed emergency managers.

The district’s system for dealing with sexual misconduct was the subject of a federal complaint, which shows that the Detroit district didn’t meet legal requirements to look into a sexual assault allegation involving students in 2015.

The district was hit with the complaint soon after a newly elected school board and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took control of the district in 2017. In response, the district made a number of changes to the way sexual misconduct is handled in its 106 schools. Federal officials have dropped the legal case against the district, though they are still monitoring progress.

The complaint was publicized for the first time this week in an article published by The 74, an education news publication. The story points out that little public attention has focused on the way K-12 districts address sexual assault even as a debate rages around the handling of sexual assault on college campuses.

According to a letter federal officials sent to the Detroit district, the district did not investigate the incident at the time and the victim — a student with special needs who was 5 years old when the incident occurred — missed several months of school without any follow-up from the district.

Things have changed since then, said Kristen Howard, the district’s civil rights coordinator and a special assistant to Vitti.

“It’s an unfortunate past history,” she said. “We recognize it, and we’re working hard to build systems. We want our stakeholders to know that we’re here, and we’re available — and that (the incident) is not the status quo.”

Howard said the district has already gone further than it was required to under a deal it reached with the U.S. Department of Education.

Her appointment this year as the district’s top civil rights official was one step — she had no predecessor.

Last August, another two officials were added to the brand new Office of Equity, Advocacy, and Civil Rights. The office now has a website, monitored by Howard’s staff, where anyone can submit an anonymous complaint about a civil rights violation in the district

For the first time, the district paid to send employees to a training on Title IX — a federal law governing sex crimes in schools. The board created a new policy designed to protect people of all genders and sexual orientations from sexual misconduct.

Principals have received two annual trainings from the Association of Title IX Administrators on the law, Howard said. Last month, at the district’s invitation, officials from the federal Office of Civil Rights — the same agency that filed the complaint — held an additional training with principals.

Many of these changes are brand new, and it remains to be seen how effective they will be.

Still, they fill in for a system that was practically non-existent.

The federal complaint focuses on the years 2013 through 2016. During that time, according to the district, 45 students were involved in “criminal sexual conduct,” including a 5-year-old with special needs who was sexually assaulted by other students on the school bus as he returned home after school.

Another 233 students were involved either as victims or abusers in incidents of sexual harassment, such as inappropriate sexual comments, according to the letter.

The complaint says the district had no system in place to deal with the issues. At the time of the incident with the 5-year-old, the district was headed by its fourth emergency manager, Darnell Earley. (As emergency manager of the City of Flint, Earley played a role in that city’s water crisis.)

Critics of emergency management say Early’s job was primarily to salvage the school’s tanking finances, and that academics and other policies were ignored.

When Vitti took over the district in 2017, “there wasn’t a system or process in place” for dealing with sexual assault complaints, Howard said. “Why they failed to put a system and process in place, we really can’t answer.”

The district has since reimbursed the student’s family for any counseling he needed as a result of the incident — another part of its deal with federal officials. The district also offered to pay for additional therapy, and educators met to discuss how the incident would impact the student’s special needs, Howard said.

The student is still enrolled in the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Read the full complaint below.

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