Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is currently responsible for over 350,000 children. Each day parents entrust schools to provide their children with an education in an environment that keeps them safe and secure. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) completed its investigation of two complaints — one filed by Legal Aid Chicago and one by Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) — alleging that CPS failed to comply with Title IX following reports of student sexual assault. Title IX is a civil rights law, that was enacted almost 50 years ago, that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding.

Legal Aid Chicago’s client, Debbie, was sexually assaulted on her way home from school by a group of 13 boys, 7 of whom she recognized as her classmates. After she reported it to her school the next morning, her CPS high school failed to investigate the allegations and failed to offer her counseling or social work services, despite her debilitating fear of walking to and from school or transferring classes once she got to school. The school also failed to offer her transportation service and to offer her a hallway escort. Because of these failures, her fears and trauma were so great she missed school to avoid seeing her attackers. The school dismissed her fears by refusing to send work home and then proceeded to give Debbie (a college-bound student at the time) a failing grade in every subject, for missing the last few weeks of school. Debbie contacted Legal Aid Chicago and attorneys worked with her family to obtain a safety transfer to a new apartment and a new high school, they obtained accommodations for Debbie in her new school and filed the Title IX complaint against CPS.

In response to the complaints filed by Legal Aid Chicago and CAASE, OCR opened a district-wide investigation into CPS’s compliance with Title IX.  Last week, OCR concluded that CPS’s responses were “inadequate, unreasonable, and often conducted by untrained staff.” On the same day, the U.S. Department of Education reached a resolution agreement with CPS putting a federal monitor in place and requiring CPS to overhaul their Title IX policies and procedures.

“In what federal officials called a historic enforcement action to protect students from sexual violence, Chicago Public Schools has entered into a legally binding agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and pledged extensive reforms in its handling of abuse and assault cases,” wrote Hannah Leone and David Jackson of the Chicago Tribune. The Department of Education has stated that it will continue to monitor CPS for three years and noncompliance with the mandated changes may result in a loss in federal funding.

This historic result could not have been accomplished without the extraordinary work of Legal Aid Chicago attorneys Neha Lall, Ashley Fretthold, and Myka Held, whose team effort resulted in getting Debbie the housing and school transfer, and the services needed for her to successfully finish high school. They also worked with Debbie during lengthy interviews for the Chicago Tribune “Betrayed” series, in which Debbie was featured.

“Most student victims of sexual assault want a safety transfer to a new school and never to speak of the incident again.” Jennifer Payne, Chief Litigation Officer said, “Deciding to pursue a Title IX complaint meant that Debbie had to tell her story not only to her mother and various school staff, but to attorneys, OCR investigators, and newspaper reporters — an emotionally tolling experience that lasted three years. Yet, Debbie decided from the get-go that nobody should have to endure what she experienced.

The resolution agreement reached by CPS and the Department of Education is, in large part, a tribute to the determination of Debbie, a shy, soft-spoken girl who decided to make a difference, and to the legal aid lawyers who fought alongside her, every step of the way.