An Army wife is fighting to get better protection for victims of sexual harassment in Defense Department schools following an incident involving her daughter at a DoD-run school in Germany.
Three years ago, a classmate of Susan Roeder's daughter at Vilseck High School allegedly urinated into a bottle while seated near her during class. Later, as they exited the room, he allegedly asked her daughter, "Did you see it that time?" – referring to his penis.
Roeder found out about 18 months after the incident that the school's principal had classified it as misconduct, not sexual harassment – a move she said "means there is no record of the incident ever happening and [the Department of Defense Education Activity's] record stays clean."
She contends DoDEA is not following federal laws outlining public schools' responsibilities in addressing student discrimination, meaning DoDEA students "do not have the same rights when they report sexual harassment or sexual assault as every other public school student." She's raised concerns about how such complaints are investigated, how parents can appeal DoDEA decisions and how victims are, or are not, informed of punishments.
Defense officials are investigating Roeder's concerns, said DoD spokeswoman Laura Ochoa, but she declined to provide specifics, saying the department doesn't comment on ongoing investigations. DoDEA spokesman Frank O'Gara confirmed that the incident was not substantiated as sexual harassment but as student misconduct; he declined to offer a specific rationale, also citing the ongoing investigation.
Roeder also has contacted the departments of Justice and Education. Education Department officials referred her to Justice; a DOJ spokesman declined to say whether there is an investigation.
Roeder said her "first inclination was that it was 'stupid boy behavior,'" she said, but she later learned the student had exposed himself at least twice to other students and notified the principal via email.
In a response, the principal – who has since retired and couldn't be reached for comment – wrote: "I take this matter very seriously and agree with your assessment that it has risen to a level of both urgency and critical import."
The male student was suspended the day of the alleged misconduct, Roeder said, and he later returned to the U.S. along with his family. There was no disciplinary hearing, Roeder said, and she was not informed of the results of any investigation.
She became aware of the "misconduct" classification when she revisited the matter after the substitute teacher in the classroom at the time was rehired to work at the school. Roeder was concerned, she said, because the substitute teacher failed to take action when the incident happened, and the substitute teacher faced no repercussions.
"This reclassification relieved the principal of the responsibility of filing a Serious Incident Report, as the perpetrator then simply withdrew from school and returned to the U.S. to avoid a disciplinary hearing," Roeder said. "If this were investigated the way it should be, it could prevent more victims – and he could get the help he needs to stop this behavior."
Under Title IX, discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment or sexual violence. A 2000 presidential executive order mandates that those laws apply to DoDEA schools, too, and all federal agencies must report information on Title IX complaints to the Justice Department.
When she requested a copy of her daughter's written statement, Roeder also learned behavior records are destroyed at the end of each DoDEA school year. O'Gara confirmed that "each year is a clean slate for each student" in terms of student discipline, adding that alleged criminal behavior is in the hands of law enforcement.
Roeder's daughter said other students witnessed the alleged exposure, but did not hear the alleged comment made as the students left class.
"A substantiated allegation of 'exposing oneself' is a serious offense and would normally fall under sexual harassment," O'Gara said.
O'Gara said there was one allegation of sexual harassment that was substantiated at Vilseck High School during the 2013-2014 school year, but it wasn't the Roeder incident.
Concerns over victims' rights
Parents lack an avenue for appealing a local school's decision outside DoDEA, said Roeder.
"DoDEA basically writes its own rules and investigates itself," she said. "Parents in overseas locations have no one to go to when they are unable to resolve an issue with the school. There is no school board and while military commanders and the inspector general may listen, they have no authority," she said.
Roeder said she was also concerned because there was no requirement to inform the victim that the report had been reclassified "because the principal has 100 percent authority over the process and there is no written policy for the investigation."
The law gives victims the right to receive information on all outcomes of a complaint under the federal law Title IX. O'Gara said victims in the DoDEA system are also entitled to this information. However, principals must abide by privacy laws and "must balance the reporting requirement against the privacy of all parties involved."
DoDEA officials are looking at his specific topic in a review of existing policies and regulations which has been underway for more than six months, he said.
One issue is that if officials determined that it was not a Title IX-based offense, the victim may not get the same protections in terms of notification, said Scott Lewis, co-founder and an advisory board member of the Association for Title IX Administrators. "I don't know if Title IX would mean a legal requirement to notify her, but as a practical matter, it would have made sense to do so," he said.
However, if the incident is "sexualized in nature, whatever the results are, they need to let the victim know the final outcome. There's nothing that stops them from erring on the side of caution and letting her know," Lewis said.
Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.