Merced high school district’s revamped sexual harassment policies under fire

The Merced Union High School District has continued overhauling its policies and protocols on sexual violence and harassment, by releasing new guidance on how employees are disciplined for those offenses.

But at Wednesday’s district board meeting, teachers, students and supporters of #TimesUpMUHSD and #MErcedTOO — local groups mirroring national anti-sexual harassment movements — said the district still isn’t doing enough in the aftermath of allegations that a basketball coach sexually harassed a teacher.

Administrators say they have updated the district’s sexual harassment policies, instituted staff training and taken other steps to address the issues.

“I don’t want any student or adult to feel betrayed,” Superintendent Alan Peterson told the Sun-Star. “What we have been talking about is making sure that this doesn’t happen again. That when someone makes an allegation, we make sure there’s not a chance (he or she feels) that way.”

Back in May, Golden Valley High School teacher Annie Delgado had told board members she was re-victimized by administrators’ response to her substantiated claims of being sexually touched and harassed by Keith Hunter, current Golden Valley boys varsity basketball coach, who she did not name at the time.

Critics of the school district’s handling of sexual harassment and violence claims cited Hunter’s treatment by administrators as an example of the district’s “broken” policies.

A Sun-Star report revealed Hunter received a letter of reprimand for allegedly sexually harassing and touching Delgado. Hunter continued his role as coach and a special education teacher at the same school as Delgado.

An independent investigation found Hunter slapped Delgado on the buttocks during the Merced High School Boosters’ Hall of Fame induction dinner on March 25, 2017, violating the school district’s sexual harassment policies, according to the letter of reprimand.

Hunter also likely made several sexually lewd comments about her legs and buttocks to Delgado, the letter states. Delgado told the Sun-Star Hunter also made comments about — and hovered his hands — over her breasts.

The letter’s had an impact on male and female students at Golden Valley High, according to 17-year-old student Aaliyah Jensen, who spoke at Wednesday’s board meeting, saying she is a sexual assault survivor.

Many male students at Golden Valley High, some in Delgado’s own classes, have publicly voiced their indifference toward Hunter’s alleged actions, Jensen told the school board. The boys, she said, called Hunter a “good person” and suggested Delgado should have ignored the abuse.

“What are they being told?” Jensen asked the school board members. “That you guys don’t care. It’s been a year and nothing has happened.”

Jensen said female students who read the Sun-Star article, including herself, were scared to walk around campus with the idea that a man who sexually abused another teacher has received minimal punishment and was still working on campus.

“Keith Hunter should not be on the school site,” Jensen said. “He should not be a teacher. He should not be a coach.”

School board members at the end of the meeting defended their response, saying they are trying their best to address sexual harassment. “I know a lot about sexual assault through (its impact on) my own family,” said board President Dave Honey. “And I’m getting real sick of somebody saying that I don’t understand what this is about ... I do understand it.”

Board Vice President John Medearis and member Julio Valadez said they want a special board meeting soon to discuss the perceived “shortcomings” of the district’s sexual harassment policies expressed Wednesday.

“I know people don’t know everything we talk about,” Medearis said. “There are things we cannot share. It is disappointing that many think that we don’t care about what’s going on.”

But Medearis also said he understands “actions versus words.”

“Why is it that what we agreed to do and the things that we’re doing ... are not resonating with our staff and our students?” Medearis asked, pushing for the special meeting to address community concerns. “Why do they feel we have not heard them?”

Addressing sexual abuse

Since Delgado’s speech, district officials said they have accomplished several tasks in an ongoing effort to better address sexual harassment and violence claims.

Those tasks include:

  • Updating board policies and administrative regulations to align with Title IX requirements.
  • Allocating time for mandatory professional training.
  • Outlining how the district disciplines for sexual harassment and violence.
  • Creating posters and other physical materials informing about sexual harassment for classrooms, staff rooms and hallways.
  • Developing rules for processing sexual harassment and bullying complaints.
  • Training administrators on receiving and handling complaints, including discipline, investigation and follow-ups.
  • Visiting staff at high schools to hear their concerns.
  • Creating a central and visible online space devoted to information on sexual harassment and violence, and resources for victims.
  • Placing Title IX information on all the school websites.

Several other steps are still in the works, including following up on complaints with independent investigators and conducting an annual climate survey of students and staff.

On Wednesday, the school district released new guidance on how employees are progressively disciplined for sexual harassment. Those can include:

  • A verbal warning when a minor and unintentional incident was misinterpreted as sexual harassment.

  • A written summary memo, which memorializes the verbal warning, may be placed in the employee’s personnel file depending on the severity of the incident.

  • A letter of warning, when an act could be interpreted as sexual in nature, such as pats on the buttocks during sporting events or practices.

  • A letter of reprimand for when the actions are deliberate with sexual intent — or when statements or questions with sexual content are made.

  • A 45-day letter of unprofessional conduct when sexual harassment continues after the letter of reprimand.

  • A suspension or dismissal when the actions are severe enough or repeated after the 45-day letter.

But these new guidelines weren’t clear, said Kathryn Forbes, a professor of women’s studies at Fresno State, who has attended recent board meetings. She noted that there was no guidelines for repeat offenders of minor offenses, and the appeal process for those who feel wrongly accused was unclear.

Forbes also told the school board she was concerned there weren’t different approaches for if the victim was a student or a teacher.

Caroline Heldman, a national advocate against sexual harassment and violence, also on Wednesday said the policy was unclear and inaccessible.

“It is very difficult (for a victim) to know what to do,” Heldman said, noting that the district’s webpage on sexual harassment was buried and hard to find.

School board member Julio Valadez agreed, noting he was trying to look up the policies on the website during the meeting and couldn’t quickly and easily find the information.

Heldman, a vocal member of the #TimesUpMUHSD group, in May presented six demands to the school district to address sexual violence and harassment. Four of those demands have yet to be accomplished, Heldman told the school board Wednesday.

Those demands include having an independent professional, such as the Valley Crisis Center, hold meetings with survivors and get facts that would drive the revision of policies. Also, advocates want a district-wide reporting process that is easy to access and accommodates informal and formal complaints

The last two demands the district has “ignored” are conducting an annual climate survey and more training for school resource officers, Heldman said.

Heldman applauded the district for working on two of the demands: instituting mandatory sexual abuse training for staff and students, and revising policies to comply with state and federal law.

But she said both were incomplete, noting the policies were vague and didn’t go far enough, and that some teachers who attended the new trainings ended up confused instead of enlightened.

“This isn’t about just policies and procedures. It’s about real lives,” Heldman said. “What happened to Annie, and what has happened to other students and faculty must never happen again.”

‘Institutional betrayal’ alleged

Experts who study the effects of sexual harassment and violence call the school district’s behavior in Delgado’s case “institutional betrayal,” noting such a response has devastating effects on victims, including lowering the likelihood of reporting the abuse, according to studies.

Institutional betrayal is a psychology-derived term that explains how an institution, such as a school district, can make a sexual abuse victim’s experience and life much worse through its response, leaving the victim feeling betrayed. It could result in disassociation, depression and suicide on top of trauma experienced from the abuse.

“This is toxic stuff,” said Jennifer Freyd, a psychology professor and researcher at the University of Oregon who specializes in researching institutional betrayal and the effects of sexual violence and discrimination within institutional settings.

“If someone does disclose abuse, the school district’s response can make things better or worse,” Freyd said, noting the alleged actions of administrators at the Merced Union High School District seem to exhibit a pattern of institutional betrayal.

“From the video clip (of Delgado’s May speech), it appears Delgado faced institutional betrayal,” Freyd said. “If so, the district should apologize to her and make amends.”

Inspired by Delgado, several of the district’s students have attended recent board meetings and shared their own or their friends’ experiences of disillusionment while reporting sexually assault and harassment.

But student advocates have said more students decided not to come forward because they feared the district would belittle their complaints or retaliate against them.

Opening up about sexual abuse is hard for victims because many survivors may experience trauma such as post-traumatic stress sisorder, said Chee Yang, director of the Valley Crisis Center.

“There are physical and mental reactions with the trauma of being assaulted,” Yang said. “Often, there can be panic attacks from anything that is associated with an assault: conversations, physical situations, emotional feelings.”

Freyd told the Sun-Star she was encouraged to see the district has a plan to make changes, but specific items on the plan are vague and require more detail. She also lauded the plan for a climate survey, as long as it’s done with sound methodology and sufficient independence to be credible.

Freyd encouraged the school district to bring in experts in the field of sexual harassment to conduct or help with staff and student training.

In addition to continued improvement of the district’s policies, Freyd said she hopes administrators publicly commend Delgado for sparking a district-wide discussion on sexual violence and harassment.

“They should be thanking her and honoring her as she is doing the school district a huge favor at her own expense,” Freyd said, noting that such encouragement helps others come forward with problems in the district. “Such a commendation would send a strong message to the whole community.”