Every day, thousands of students in Jefferson County head to school. They leave the house, they get on the bus, they take a seat at their desk.
In the classroom, on the bus, on the playground and even on social media, these students are in the care of the school district, which not only assumes the responsibility of educating these children, but also is responsible for their well being, their safety, their mental health.
One of the school’s largest responsibilities is making sure each and every student has an equal opportunity to learn. A student, especially if she or he is a member of a protected class, is denied that equal opportunity if subjected to harassment and discrimination from other students.
Reports from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), obtained by the Daily Union, show that districts around Jefferson County aren’t immune to these problems. Officially a different classification than bullying, hundreds of reports about harassment and discrimination were made by female students, students of color, LGBTQ students, immigrant students and more in Jefferson County schools from 2013-18.
The most common form of harassment or discrimination in Jefferson County was based on sex. Race, sexual orientation and disability were close behind.
Wisconsin state law requires school districts to have policies not only prohibiting harassment
and discrimination, but also outlining how reports can be made, how they’re investigated and how decisions can be appealed.
Some districts received more complaints than others and some didn’t receive any complaints at all. But many or none, the numbers raise questions about the safety and security of the most vulnerable students in Jefferson County schools.
Does a high number of reports mean that school isn’t protecting its students? Does not having any reports mean the district hasn’t fostered an environment in which students feel comfortable coming forward with complaints?
Whatever conclusions can be drawn from the numbers, the impact of even one incident of harassment or discrimination is not in dispute. Kate McCoy, an education consultant who works with the DPI’s prevention and wellness team, said students can internalize the harassment and start to believe what’s being said — which can have widespread ramifications.
“Any individual is going to be different, of course, but what we know is if it isn’t addressed and it’s persistent, it can undermine learning and lead to students getting less out of education,” McCoy said. “It can take up space in a student’s head; it’s harder to learn when you’re feeling harassed, unsafe. A student is less likely to feel like they belong, less engaged, more likely to avoid things. Less likely to engage in positive things such as sports and extracurriculars and participating in class. Might lead them to act out as a behavioral issue. Over time, it can impact students a lot.”
All of those impacts, whether immediate or delayed, change educational outcomes, according to McCoy.
“If this goes on over time, it adds up,” McCoy said. “If you’re missing school because you’re avoiding school, it’s affecting relationships with teachers and their view of you, your likelihood of graduating or going to college.”
Julie Incitti, who works with the DPI on issues related to student wellbeing, including sexual harassment, said there are multiple angles from which school districts need to attack this problem. First is building a school culture that prevents harassment and discrimination from happening in the first place. Second is ensuring that reports are handled correctly when they do happen.
“A lot of times, the practices that help prevent discrimination and harassment are the same that make schools better overall for all students,” McCoy said. “A safe learning environment will go a long way toward preventing these things from happening.”
A school culture that prevents harassment, according to Incitti, includes staff and administration fostering a welcoming and inclusive environment, encouraging trusting relationships and making sure students have an “adult in the building” they know they can talk to.
“Rather than thinking about how we get 100-percent (reporting),” Incitti said. “The more effective approach is how do we prevent. Building that supportive environment so it’s less likely to get to the point where it needs to be reported.”
But no matter how welcoming the school environment can be, it’s impossible to stop every incident — especially when incidents occur on social media in an increasingly digital world — so schools need to make sure all the stakeholders are aware of the policies and how the process should work.
Ensuring the process works involves training staff and students, making sure people are engaged in the process, communicating with the school community and having meaningful consequences when these events do happen, Incitti said.
While it’s difficult to compare districts head to head because each varies in size and demographics, the county’s school administrators said they are working to foster a positive culture and make sure the policies are clear and effective in handling incidents of harassment or discrimination.
Watertown, the largest district in the county, had the highest raw number of reports at 93. But with a population of more than 3,600 students, that comes out to about 2.5 reports per 100 students, which is the second-highest rate of the eight districts analyzed.
But more reports doesn’t necessarily mean students are more likely to be discriminated against or harassed in that district; it could mean more students are likely to report it when it does happen. Cassandra Schug, superintendent of the Watertown Unified School District, said the schools have made an effort K-12 to promote students reporting incidents when they occur.
“I think that we’ve done a lot of things over the years to really encourage reporting of bullying and harassment,” Schug said. “We resolved the majority of these pieces internally because, again, I think we have an administrative team that the students and the staff and our families really trust. So I do really believe that we take these instances really seriously. We investigate them, we follow up, we provide support when needed. We’ve done some things as a district that I think have been helpful.”
Whitewater, with its 69 reports over five years from a student population of nearly 2,000 students, had the highest rate at 3.6 reports per 100 students.
Whitewater tries to instill a culture of kindness early, but when it receives reports, it has to make sure it responds correctly and learns from the past, Lanora Heim, director of pupil services at the Whitewater Unified School District, said.
“We, as a district, take it so seriously. We report everything from when a kid gets on the bus to then when the kid gets dropped off at home,” Heim said. “The numbers are what they are and you’re just basically reflecting on is there anything we could have done differently? Is there anything we can do better moving forward? Is there any particular child we’re not noticing? Is there something we really needed to do to reach out and help them in some way?”
Following Whitewater and Watertown at the high end, Fort Atkinson, Jefferson and Waterloo each receive 0.8 reports per 100 students, the documents show.
Lake Mills — the best-rated district in the county — receives 0.25 reports per 100 students, while Johnson Creek and Palmyra-Eagle didn’t get any reports of harassment or discrimination for five years.
Johnson Creek and Palmyra-Eagle, the administrators of both districts said, are small enough that the students can be monitored closely enough so incidents rarely rise to a level that requires reporting.
Steve Bloom, administrator at the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District, said the intimacy of the district — with students in the same building from middle school through graduation — helps the culture.
“Frankly, again, our small size allows us to head off a lot of these things before they might even become reportable in that definition,” Bloom said.
Bloom and Johnson Creek School District Superintendent Michael Garvey said the small size of their districts allows teachers, staff and administrators to get more control on the culture and nip any incidents in the bud before they rise to the level of formal reporting.
“We’re hoping that we’re not getting to that point of harassment or that point of discrimination, and there’s really no reason that we need to get there,” Garvey said. “So there’s zeros. It’s just we deal with things as they come and hope not to get to that significant complaint.”
But nationwide data shows a different reality. Sexual harassment — Jefferson County’s most common type of harassment — remains hugely prevalent in middle and high schools around the country. Nearly half of all girls between grades seven and 12 reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, but the schools those girls attended — 79 percent of schools in fact — said they didn’t have any cases of sexual harassment, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
“Research has found that women on college campuses and girls in junior high and high school frequently experience sexual harassment, sexual abuse or assault, and other crimes or behavior that constitute sex discrimination,” the AAUW wrote. “But educational institutions frequently fail to accurately report the sexual harassment or assault that is occurring on their watch.”
Pam Streich, district administrator of the Lake Mills School District, said — similarly to Palmyra-Eagle and Johnson Creek — she is not surprised by her district’s relatively low number of reports because of the school’s small size and the benefits that come with that.
But, Streich said, it always is possible there are incidents going unreported and under the radar from the watchful eyes of teachers and staff. Streich said there are a lot of reasons students wouldn’t report harassment and it is up to the district to counteract those ideas.
“I think that kids don’t want to be the narc. I think kids don’t want to be singled out. I think kids want to give the illusion that they’re brave and they can handle it. I think that those are some of the things that go into that reporting,” Streich said. “I would love to create a situation where, reporting is part of the culture and there’s not a stigma to being a reporter. But again, that’s a lot of positive experiences that kids have to experience, to change culture like that.”
Ultimately, administrators in each district in the county said this issue is hugely important and their staffs spend a lot of time working to get better in all of its complexities.
“This is the thorn in our side,” Streich said. “We know that building relationships and having safe environments maximizes learning. And when you have these kinds of incidents, it’s just undermining everything that we do in the education process. So, we take this issue very, very seriously, and it’s something that we address.”