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School board member files Title IX complaint against Palmyra

Written by Merriell Moyer/Lebanon Daily News | Nov 23, 2016 8:05 AM
ralph_duquette.jpg

FILE PHOTO: The Palmyra Area School District school board meets. (Photo: Michael K. Dakota, Lebanon Daily)

(Palmyra) -- Palmyra Area School District board member Ralph Duquette announced Thursday that he has filed a complaint against the district regarding Title IX compliance.

"We know already about one (instance of sexual assault) because it was in the newspaper. I know about another one because she told me as a result of that newspaper article," Duquette said during Thursday's board meeting.

Duquette also brought up an incident that occurred in 2014 in which the high school principal at the time, Benjamin Ruby, allegedly photographed a bra that was in a bag dropped off for a student by the student's mother. Ruby allegedly emailed the photo to high school staff members.

"Why is the district not following its own policies?" Duquette asked. "Following protocol? I don't think so. This is why I filed a Title IX complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR)."

Title IX protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance, according to the U.S. Department of Education website. Title IX covers sexual harassment and assault as well as things like recruitment, athletics and employment.

"I'm not asking for any personal identifying information, or anything like that," Duquette said in an interview before the meeting. "What I want the district to do - are they doing the things that they are supposed to do?"

He pointed at deficiencies in the school district's Title IX compliance with regard to some basic information being made available to the public such as the name and contact information of the Title IX coordinator, which are currently left blank on the school's official documents.

However, the school district website does have that information available under their "whom to call" list, which names assistant superintendent Bernie Kepler as the Title IX coordinator.

Duquette brought up several school board policies regarding sexual harassment that he felt were not being followed by the school district.

"We have four policies for harassment and discrimination including 248348448 and 548," Duquette said. "They are all practically verbatim. One was revised in 2006, and another in 1995. They don't even really keep up with the policies."

All four policies are very similar in wording, and all four call for an internal investigation to be completed by either the building's principal or a compliance officer after a report of sexual harassment is received.

All four policies also state that "the investigator shall prepare a written report within 15 days of receiving the complaint, unless additional time is required to complete the investigation," and that "the report shall include a summary of the investigation, a determination of whether the complaint has been substantiated and whether it establishes a violation of this Policy, and a recommendation as to what corrective action, if any, is required."

The report would be provided to the compliance officer and the superintendent according to the policy.

"Something one of the policies says - and it is in all four of them - is that 'the obligation to conduct this investigation shall not be negated by the fact that a criminal investigation is pending or concluded,'" Duquette said. "When you have student on student sexual violence the district must make sure it does not migrate into the school building."

Palmyra Area School District school board gets heated when during the public comment portion of the meeting several people voiced opposition to school board member's Ralph Duquette Twitter feedMichael K. Dakota, Lebanon Daily News

After learning of the incident involving 19-year-old Evangelos Aftosmes, of 982 E. Pine St., Palmyra, who was arrested in June for the alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl while both of them were still attending school in the district Oct. 2015, another girl from the school district approached Duquette regarding sexual harassment she received while on school property.

"In one case, a student contacted me, and said she didn't know who to go to. She said she was sexually assaulted," Duquette said. "She sat in a classroom next to the brother of her assailant, and he harassed her repeatedly."

During her sophomore year, the girl allegedly was harassed by the boy sitting next to her, and he was eventually moved to another class, but they were both in the same extracurricular activities together, and the sexual harassment continued there, according to Duquette.

"The district should have done an investigation because she went to a school employee - at that point the district is on the hook," Duquette said. "The following year, she said boys were telling her she deserved to be raped, and she complained to a teacher, and the teacher went to a guidance counselor and it went nowhere."

Duquette feels an investigation should have been conducted immediately after the girl reported the incident.

"Whoever the Title IX coordinator was at that point - and Bernie Kepler was not with the school district at that time - should have conducted an investigation," Duquette said.

During the meeting, in which superintendent Lisa Brown brought up some policies that needed to be revised, Duquette asked why the ones dealing with sexual harassment were not being addressed?

"I can tell you we are following appropriate protocol - you're dealing with confidential student information, and I'm not willing to discuss that here," Brown said.

Duquette indicated that he felt that the OCR would find deficiencies should they conduct an investigation.

"Mr. Duquette, we have been examining every time we have a situation like this. The most important thing I think I do as superintendent is to protect students," Brown said. "That is the most important thing I do. I take that job very seriously, so please don't accuse me of not looking into these situations."

Duquette brought up the Aftosmes case, and said that he was told by both Brown and Kepler that no internal investigation had taken place.

"You said, and the solicitor said, that you are not obligated because there is no predicate event - sexual assault seems to me like a pretty serious predicate event, but the regulations and the board policies state you must do so," Duquette said. "You say you take student safety seriously, and you know what, that is a nice PR piece, but I'm not seeing it. Withholding information from the public, in my opinion, is not appropriate at all."

Earlier in the meeting, before Duquette revealed that he filed the complaint, Brown brought a Title IX audit up to the board.

"As per board direction, I was asked to look at who would perform a Title IX audit for us," Brown said. "I have discussed this with both the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) and our solicitor. PSBA does not conduct audits, but they've given us policies to look at to make sure we are in compliance with all our Title IX requirements."

Christopher Connell, the school board president, said he thought an internal audit would be a good idea.

"I think we do pretty well on the process side, but from the documentation standpoint - I know there is stuff there, but I just don't know if there are any gaps," Connell said. "I'm OK with looking at this."

After Duquette made the announcement regarding his Title IX complaint, Connell said he felt it would be best to just have the OCR conduct their investigation along with the district's solicitor, Robert Frankhouser of Barley Snyder in Lancaster County.

Brown and Connell both declined to comment after the meeting.

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the Lebanon Daily News.

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