Feds chastise Utah school district for failing to seriously investigate 100 student reports of sex assault and harassment

Alpine School District has signed a resolution agreement and agreed to make significant changes. A report said it had been failing to provide victims with resources and often let teachers accused of misconduct quietly resign.

Alpine School District did little to investigate more than 100 cases of sexual assault and harassment in its schools for years — including several reports where students were not offered any support after being kissed, touched or assaulted by teachers — according to an investigation from the U.S. Department of Education.

The damning 21-page report released Thursday from the department’s Office for Civil Rights detailed one assault after another during a three-year span that was mishandled by the district, the largest in the state.

In one case, a student reported being sexually assaulted by a teacher in the classroom after school. The student victim was not given any resources after coming forward, investigators said. And the district did nothing to look into whether any other students had also been assaulted. Instead, records show, Alpine allowed the teacher to quietly resign.

That happened in at least three teacher-on-student assault reports, according to the federal review, with the district in Utah County counting an employee stepping down or retiring as a resolution to the case. Often, Alpine failed to flag the concerns, as it’s supposed to, to the state office that tracks teacher misconduct and can take action on licenses.

In another case, a parent told the district that she’d seen an Alpine employee hug female elementary students and kiss each one on the cheek as they stepped off a bus. The district’s director of transportation reviewed footage and confirmed that had happened then and on other occasions. But the district did not conduct any interviews or contact the parents of the other female students to let them know. The transportation director recommended that the employee be suspended and then moved to a different route upon return to work; the district told investigators it couldn’t confirm if that discipline ever took place.

Alpine also failed to properly respond to more than 80 cases where students reported being assaulted or harassed by other students, investigators found.

One female student reported being raped in a school parking lot by a male student, and at least one school employee said they’d overheard the alleged perpetrator brag about it. But the district said it didn’t look into the allegations because police didn’t pursue a criminal case, and the student accused of rape was already planning to transfer schools.

The report from the Department of Education, which identifies individuals by anonymous numbers, countered: “The district had obligations under Title IX to determine if the rape occurred and created a hostile environment for Student 4, so that the district would know what remedies to provide Student 4 and whether Student 5 posed a risk to students in other schools.”

Title IX is the federal law that charges public schools with swiftly investigating reports of sexual violence and ensuring students receive education without sex-based discrimination.

Ultimately, the investigators determined that Alpine’s serious, widespread and systemic shortfalls violated the law in at least eight places and put additional students at risk for assault.

“Alpine School District failed to meet its Title IX obligations to protect students from sexual assaults, including by district employees,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon in a statement. “And [it] operated a broadly noncompliant system for responding to sex discrimination in its schools.”

Federal officials investigated reports of assault in the district over three school years, starting with 2017-18 and ending with 2019-20.

They chastised the school district for not having a functioning Title IX office during that time, leading to many of the issues. The director spot was a revolving door, with three Title IX leaders over the three years; and there was never training provided for that position. Students were not directed to the office to report, and there were no policies for investigating their cases if they did. Only one of 88 reported sex harassment cases over the three-year period was directed there, according to the education department’s review.

Most investigations were instead done by school administrators, the report stated, most of whom reported they didn’t know which procedures they were supposed to follow.

The district also kept poor records for most cases — including some with just scribbled, illegible notes — because it had no policy or standards for how to document those. And it had no unified system for tracking assaults and harassment, leading to significant undercounting, investigators found.

The district’s spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday on the report.

Alpine Superintendent Shane Farnsworth has signed an 11-page resolution agreement with the Department of Education, which was released along with the findings, to make significant changes to overhaul and improve the district’s handling and investigation of sex assault and harassment cases moving forward.

The district of 81,000 students will be under review for compliance for at least the next two years.

After assaulting students, teachers allowed to resign

After one student graduated, she sent a letter in 2019 to her school counselor explaining what the teacher had done to her and, she believed, at least two other students, according to the federal report.

The student said her teacher had groomed her, touched her lower back whenever her skin was slightly exposed and kissed her often when they were alone in his classroom.

The school’s principal looked into the allegations and determined that the teacher had a pattern: He would single out female students, trying to find any who were vulnerable — particularly looking for those from single-parent households — and then find ways to be alone with them.

The principal said he talked to both current and former students who described how the teacher had also kissed them when they were alone, like the student reported in the letter, and would tell them that they needed to learn how to kiss from him. Most of the students, he said, transferred to get away from the teacher. The report doesn’t include a specific number for how many were assaulted.

The principal wrote: “As we investigated we heard the same story again and again. ... [I]t was eerie how similar the stories were.”

The Department of Education said while the principal did some initial investigation — unlike the failure of the district to do so in other cases — Alpine still mishandled the case.

The teacher denied the allegations and “blamed the girls for misunderstanding his teaching methods,” according to the records in the case. And so, instead of taking action against him — and reporting him to the state agency, the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission (UPPAC), that investigates and disciplines teachers — Alpine School District let the teacher take the rest of the school year off with a doctor’s note and then retire.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Benjamin Rasmussen, who oversees the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission (UPPAC), is pictured on the left in this photo from Thursday, July 22, 2021.

There was no discipline by the district. There was no note in his file.

And the students who spoke to the principal were not provided any support or resources. In fact, the Office for Civil Rights investigators say the girls were never asked if the teacher’s conduct created a hostile environment that needed to be redressed in any way.

The investigators say the case is illustrative of how the district repeatedly bungled employee-on-student assaults, particularly in failing to provide any help for affected students.

There were four employee-on-student assault cases reported during the three-year period that investigators covered. A fifth case, which happened during the 2016-17 school year, also came up during their research.

All of the cases, they said, were mishandled.

“In none of the employee-to-student cases did OCR find evidence that the district investigated whether the reported or substantiated sexual assaults created a hostile environment for district students,” the report states.

It then adds that in three of the five cases, the district allowed the teachers to resign or retire without investigating if the teachers had sexually assaulted other students. It appears that only two were flagged for UPPAC.

In most of the cases, the district said it was letting local law enforcement or the Utah Division of Child and Family Services investigate.

In the case where the student reported in a 2019 letter being sexually assaulted by a teacher in the classroom after school and then the teacher quietly resigned, there were criminal charges. The teacher pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual conduct with a minor.

But federal law under Title IX states that districts are still supposed to conduct their own investigations — regardless of police involvement — because they have a duty to provide support and interventions for their students during the school day. That can include counseling, extensions for assignments and moving classes, among other measures.

Investigators called it an “abdication of its responsibility” for the district not to do so. Additionally, they said: “Failing to complete a Title IX investigation when a teacher resigns risks jeopardizing the safety of other students, in violation of Title IX, in addition to concealing serious concerns from future employers.”

The third quiet resignation came in a case where a female teacher had sex with a male student who was 18 years old. According to the report, prosecutors declined to file charges in that case because of the male student’s age.

The school district dropped any investigation with the teacher’s resignation, but it shouldn’t have.

Investigators wrote: “OCR found no evidence that the district investigated whether Teacher 3′s conduct, even if not criminal, constituted sexual harassment under the district’s policies or created a hostile environment for Student 3.”

Resources rarely offered to victims assaulted by other students

Most of the reports that investigators reviewed were student-on-student assaults and harassment.

The team looked at more than 100 cases, with at least 88 falling in the three-year period. The same failure to investigate pervaded those, according to the report, along with a failure to provide resources or to take steps to prevent recurrent assaults. And Alpine District also regularly failed to tell victims and their parents about the outcome of a case.

The Office for Civil Rights said it found no evidence that the district conducted an investigation when a student reported in 2018 that she was raped by a classmate at school.

The student had told the district that she was afraid of the student who raped her and what he might do to her for reporting. The district reported to police, who then arrested the student. But the school’s assistant principal later updated the case with this note: “Case went to court – victim decided not to go through with charges / Determined it was consensual?”

And then the case was closed. The school didn’t do its own review of what happened, didn’t offer any support to the victim or address her concerns about a hostile environment and fears of retribution, according to investigators. There were no accommodations or remedies offered.

That is how all of the cases were handled, according to investigators. “OCR did not find any evidence among the 88 reported sexual assaults that the district investigated or analyzed whether the reported incidents had created a hostile environment for the harassed students as required by Title IX.”

The district only ever looked at student-on-student assault cases for discipline, according to the report.

In 2017, a student who had allegedly touched and made sexually explicit comments to several female students was suspended for two days. The district didn’t provide any records that showed school officials reaching out to the victims or telling them about the decision in the case.

In January 2020, a different student’s parents notified their son’s teacher that another student had inappropriately grabbed their son. The principal then reached out to them, and they asked him for some kind of solution to prevent it from happening again.

The principal wrote that when he contacted the parents they were on vacation. He never followed up with them again. He never provided an intervention for the student, investigators found.

Later, in May 2020, the parents of another boy in the same class also reported the same perpetrator had touched their son after he told him to stop. The teacher, they said, brushed it off, but the parents said their son had become depressed and suicidal based on the incident.

The principal followed up on that second report by calling DCFS. The district did not do its own investigation. And it did not look into whether other students were also affected. No counseling services were offered to the second boy who reported, despite the parents mentioning his mental health had suffered due to the assault.

In all of the cases, the Office for Civil Rights indicated that the district failed to prevent recurrent assaults or the risk for future assaults. Harassers were rarely, if ever, separated from their victims. There were only a few cases where no-contact orders were provided. And safety plans crafted for a student, such as new bus routes or classes, were even less common.

The district also regularly did not look into previous reports against repeat offenders.

In 2018, a male student assaulted a female student, who repeatedly told him to stop, in a parking lot adjacent to the school during school hours. Notes from the male student’s records states: He “had done something similar at a previous school.”

The boy was suspended. But the district never made any attempt, according to investigators, to look into the prior allegations. Again, nothing was done to support the female student.

Investigators provided example after example that followed the same pattern. The district didn’t offer counseling to a student who was followed home on her bus and forcibly kissed by another student; and there were no offers to protect her from further harassment, such as a no-contact order.

A student who cried in 2019 when she reported a male student putting his hand down her pants without her consent was similarly not given resources, according to investigators.

The record of her report said: “The young lady was so scared and numb by the advance that she just didn’t know what to do.” But when the assistant principal talked to officials from the Office for Civil Rights for their investigation, he said she “seemed to be OK” and so he didn’t follow up with her.

In all of the cases, investigators said they could only find two instances where the records showed the district providing some sort of intervention.

No direction, bad policies and faulty record-keeping

Public school districts are supposed to have a Title IX director, according to federal law, who guides the process for reporting assaults, reviews cases and interventions, handles compliance and trains other school staff on how to respond to reports. The director is expected to keep organized documents on each reported case.

All students are supposed to be informed about who that person is and how to contact them to file a complaint.

Over the three years the report looked at, though, Alpine had a different Title IX director, whose contact information was rarely shared publicly with students and families. Each person who held the position told investigators that they didn’t receive training and lacked direction from the district’s top leadership on what they were supposed to do. After one year on the job, each of them left.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of Alpine School District's Board of Education and Superintendent Shane Farnsworth are seen on Friday, June 30, 2023.

All of the coordinators said they were in charge of Title IX in addition to other responsibilities under “student services,” leaving them without time to deal with assault and harassment issues. The staffers also oversaw the district’s social workers, mental health partnerships, crisis processes, suicide prevention efforts, drug and alcohol prevention efforts, translation services and staff disciplinary hearings.

That lack of direction has led to a mess in Alpine with adhering to Title IX requirements, according to the report.

The district currently has no clear procedures for reporting complaints — which are supposed to be crafted by a Title IX director, along with the school board — even though there are five overlapping policies that mention harassment and assault.

One policy requires a written complaint to be filed to a principal to start an investigation, even though federal law says there should be a streamlined form that goes to the Title IX coordinator to handle all cases.

The same policy says an investigation will consist only of interviewing the accused and “if the facts convinced the administrator that sexual harassment had occurred, then the administrator should direct the accused to stop the behavior immediately and discipline the misconduct according to the severity of the offense.”

The person submitting the complaint is supposed to be interviewed, according to best policy. But none of the policies mention talking to the victim.

Additionally, “none of the 11 school administrators whom OCR interviewed knew how to apply” two key policies, the investigators wrote in their report.

Some of the administrators said they didn’t know the policies existed. None were trained.

And that has snowballed further into “often incomplete” and “lax and fragmented record-keeping practices,” according to the report.

For instance, for the 2017-18 school year, Alpine had previously told the Office for Civil Rights, as part of the annual reporting process, that it only had one case of sexual assault that year. But when OCR investigators later came in to review the district, Alpine said it had 20 cases.

The district also said it had no sexual harassment reports at 53 of its schools. But when investigators looked, they found 11 cases existed at eight of those schools.

In the district’s digital system, some cases of assault are marked “public display of affection.” Others are labeled “obscene behavior.” The inconsistency led to cases being severely undercounted.

And there were no standards set by a Title IX coordinator or district leadership on how to document cases when they do come up.

For the five employee-on-student assaults, the district had scant records. The one page of records provided to investigators for the employee on the bus who hugged and kissed female students “did not even include the name of the employee,” the report says.

The records provided by the district in the case where the teacher assaulted the student after school in the classroom didn’t have any records from law enforcement or the courts — despite the teacher being arrested and prosecuted.

Student-on-student assault cases typically only had documentation if the alleged perpetrator was disciplined.

There were no complaint forms, investigative reports, notices of findings, recordings from hearings or notes about interventions.

Administrators told investigators they didn’t know what they were supposed to document or how long they are supposed to retain records.

What’s next?

Alpine School District has agreed to make several changes to resolve the investigation. Those include:

• Ensuring there’s a Title IX coordinator for the district who will oversee compliance with the law. Currently, David Lund holds that position and will be tasked with leading many of these fixes.

• Creating a clear process for how students can file a complaint and revising policies to match.

• Informing students and guardians how to contact the Title IX coordinator and teaching them how to recognize sexual assault and harassment.

• Providing training to staff about what sexual assault is and how to respond to reports and document concerns.

• Developing a record-keeping system where reports are consistent and preserved.

• Conducting a biennial climate survey of students, parents, guardians and employees to gauge how they feel about sexual assault resources and reporting.

• Looking annually at the district’s data for trends, such as an increasing number of assaults, and creating plans to address that.

• Reviewing past mishandled assault and harassment cases to see if “further action is needed to provide an equitable resolution of each incident.”

The district’s first report to the Department of Education is due on Nov. 1 to detail how it will move forward. The Office for Civil Rights will conduct annual reviews in 2024 and 2025 into Alpine’s progress.