Robert Gehrke: There needs to be accountability for Alpine School District’s mishandling of sexual misconduct cases

Federal investigation found the district didn’t support students assaulted by teachers and failed to report perpetrators to the state

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Someone needs to lose their job — it’s that simple.

Only after kids are safe can they learn, but preventing harm to children was apparently more than the Alpine School District can manage.

That’s according to an infuriating 21-page report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that identified more than 100 cases between 2017 and 2020 where kids attending Alpine schools were sexually assaulted or harassed — in several instances by teachers — and the district either failed to investigate, punish the perpetrators, support the victims or take basic steps to keep the same thing from happening to other students.

As my colleague Courtney Tanner first reported, in one particularly egregious case a student reported that a teacher had sexually assaulted her in a classroom after school. The school failed to provide any support to the student, didn’t investigate whether the teacher had assaulted any other students and let the teacher quietly resign.

In the five sexual assault cases in the report, three of the teachers were allowed to quietly resign. And the district only reported two of the perpetrators to the state office that tracks teacher misconduct.

We’ve seen this same thing happen with police officers, where an officer under investigation leaves a department, only to show up at another department.

Here, though, the district’s failure to report teachers who assault students could allow them to go on and teach somewhere else, potentially exposing other kids in other schools or districts to dangerous predators.

Part of the reason the response was so slipshod was that the school administrators were poorly trained in how to properly deal with allegations of harassment and assault, the report said.

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

Put another way, the district failed in its most fundamental responsibility and put kids in other schools at risk in the process.

Who, precisely, is to blame for this systemic breakdown is more complicated.

The district got a new superintendent in 2020, who signed an agreement committing the district to improving training and response in the future. The district’s Title IX coordinator position saw high turnover with three people holding the position in the three-year span the federal investigation took place.

But it’s unfathomable that there would have been nobody else in the entire district office who saw what was happening and tried to fix the unacceptable situation. And it’s hard to believe that the district’s school board didn’t at least get calls from furious parents demanding action when there was none.

That’s how this typically works. Bureaucrats at the Education Department don’t just wake up one day and decide to investigate a district in Utah. They get involved after parents, frustrated at having hit dead ends and feeling they aren’t being heard or getting justice for their kids, turn to the only avenue they have left.

We saw this same thing when the feds had to come in and force the Davis School District to stop ignoring rampant racism and bullying directed at Black and Asian students. In both instances, the fact that it took federal authorities to clean up these systemic failures is a further indictment of the inept leadership at the districts and the school boards.

Now, with the facts before us, the process of fixing the system can begin, but there should also be a reckoning for those who failed to do their most fundamental job and fight to keep kids from harm.