WHITINGHAM — The U.S. Justice Department announced it reached an agreement with the Twin Valley Unified Union School District to resolve an investigation into complaints of student-on-student harassment based on race and sex.
“The department’s investigation revealed that the school district knew of, and did not respond sufficiently to, individualized harassment and a broader hostile educational environment in Twin Valley Middle High School,” the department said in a statement.
The review focused on the school district’s responses to allegations of harassment from the 2019/2020 school year to now. The department said its investigation identified “instances of targeted peer harassment and pervasive documented use of derogatory epithets and comments based on students’ race, sex, sexual orientation and sex stereotypes.”
Since the school district did not sufficiently address these instances, the department said, students were deprived of equal access to educational opportunities provided by the school.
“Pervasive racial and sex-based harassment in public schools violates the Constitution’s most basic promise of equal protection,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in the statement. “This agreement will help ensure that Black and LGBTQ students can thrive in a safe and supportive educational environment going forward.”
U.S. Attorney Nikolas P. Kerest for the District of Vermont said schools should feel safe for all students; however, when harassment occurs, schools have an obligation to respond appropriately so every child has equal access to education.
“Here, the school district has agreed to take significant steps to improve its process for responding to harassment and its overall educational environment,” Kerest said.
The settlement agreement calls for the district to modify policies and procedures to prevent and address peer harassment, undertake periodic assessments of school climate at Twin Valley Middle High School, implement responsive programming to remedy hostile educational environments and improve training for district employees who receive, investigate or adjudicate complaints of harassment.
In December 2021, the Vermont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said it submitted a complaint to the Vermont Human Rights Commission seeking an investigation into incidents of racism and bullying against a Black student at Twin Valley Middle High School in Whitingham.
A spokesperson for the DOJ declined to comment on the specifics of the case, citing confidentiality, and noting it has a civil rights complaint form on its website and the investigation was opened based on a complaint that was brought to its office.
The ACLU said the student was harassed racially by a group of students during the 2020 to 2021 school year with racist epithets and white supremacy salutes, and that school officials “did nothing meaningful” to stop it.
The student was forced to transfer only weeks before the end of school to Brattleboro Union High School, and the family has since moved across the country, according to the complaint.
“We are gratified — but not surprised — that the Department of Justice concluded that Twin Valley knew of, and failed to adequately respond to, both the racist harassment our client experienced as well as the overall harmful and hostile environment it allowed to pervade the school,” said Lia Ernest, legal director of the ACLU of Vermont. “We hope that this serves as a wake-up call to all Vermont schools that they must ensure that all students are safe, protected, and supported in school.”
The federal department said the school district cooperated throughout its investigation.
The two parties mutually agreed on “a blueprint to foster a more positive school climate and strengthen procedures, training and practices for investigating and resolving allegations of discrimination,” reads a statement from the school district provided by Windham Southwest Superintendent Barbara Anne Komons-Montroll.
“We take this issue extremely seriously and have redoubled our dedication and commitment to creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students,” the school district said, calling the agreement “an opportunity for us to continue to improve our current culture with a keen eye to the future.”
The school district said that before the agreement was struck, the middle and high schools were conducting equity trainings, a school climate survey and listening sessions with educators, students and staff where participants were encouraged to share their thoughts on school climate, including strengths and areas for growth.
The meetings were facilitated by the Joy and Justice Team from the Collaborative for Educational Services.
“While the DOJ has not shared any specific findings, we are committed to do everything in our power to make every student feel they belong,” the school district said. “While we don’t want any student to have a negative experience, it saddens us that it can still happen. We have done an incredible amount of learning and growing both personally and professionally, so that we can do better.”
Improving the school culture will require “consistent effort” from everyone in the Twin Valley community, the school district said, adding that it has “a deep commitment to make our schools more inclusive and safe.”
“The steps that the DOJ is asking Twin Valley Middle High to take confirm that the actions we have been taking are on track to foster a positive change in the school environment,” the district said. “We acknowledge the efforts of the Department of Justice to help us improve our school climate because we care greatly about the well being of every student. We look forward to partnering with the entire Twin Valley community in ensuring our schools are free of discrimination and are welcoming to all.”