Wiseburn School District Is Failing at Gender Equity

Since its establishment, Da Vinci Schools has promised the protection of students of all gender identities, race, and orientation through their student handbooks and open-discussions following sensitive topics. For students, the visibility of these protections is thin and often goes under the radar. Issues throughout the years regarding incidents of harassment, bullying, and reports of investigations being left abruptly reflect Da Vinci School’s larger district Wiseburn’s failing amends for Title IX.

Above is DVC’s statement of compliance with Title IX and other federal policies amending equity and protection against discrimination, found on the Da Vinci Communications 2020-2021 Student and Parent Handbook, page 25. 

(Student Handbook Link)

Title IX, a law passed to provide gender equity in federally-funded education programs, prohibits sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking as unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex. Title IX provides a consistent, legally sound framework on which survivors, the accused, and schools can rely on. This requires schools to offer clear, accessible options for anyone to report sexual harassment and offer survivors supportive measures (class or dorm reassignments, no-contact orders, etc.). Title IX also provides “rape shield” protections and ensures that survivors are not require to divulge any medical, pyschological, or similar privileged records (U.S. Department of Education). 

Wiseburn’s CWLC Report Card

When it comes to gender equity, there are organizations that grade districts based on their amended policies. Da Vinci Schools is a part of the Wiseburn district and shares the general protections and amends the same policies as the district despite working separately in most fields. In terms of gender equity, Wiseburn has been graded an ‘F’ in a variety of gender-centered policies since 2015. 

In a report card sent out by the California Women’s Law Center, each school district in California was graded on an A to F grade scale for the following criteria:

  • Accessible board policies (not necessarily related to lactation)
  • Employee lactation accommodation policy 
  • “Married, pregnant and parenting” student policy 
  • Student policy includes lactation accommodations 
  • Title IX Coordinator identified on the website or by phone 

Currently, 95% of districts are passing (C or above), 85% have ‘high honors’ (an A or B), and 100% have the Title IX notification online. As of 2019, in Los Angeles County, 61 districts have an A, 8 have a B, 8 have a C, 1 has a D, and 3 have an F. 

Wiseburn Unified School District has received an F in 2015, 2016, and 2019. Wiseburn has failed to accommodate and comply with Title IX requirements. The single requirement that they do follow is the Title IX online notification placed on their website.

Betsy Butler, the Executive Director of the CWLC, is part of the team that scores California (specifically LA County) school districts for their compliance with Title IX.

“We did our initial evaluation, and then did a lot of follow up with all of the districts, which included following up with the Title IX coordinator, giving, you know, telling them what their grade was and why it was that way,” said Butler. “And then telling them why they should, if they didn’t have a pregnant parenting student policy, if they didn’t have a lactation accommodation policy, why they should have that, and essentially giving them both the, you know, legal background of like, this is what the law requires now.”

Butler, along with her colleague Amy Poyer, a senior staff attorney who oversees legal efforts in the organization, were distraught and upset because of Wiseburn’s failure to comply with the laws and rules handed to them. Butler and Poyer emphasized how easy and accessible Title IX compliance rules are to the school and the district. They expressed confusion as to how “there’s still hesitation to implement these policies.” 

“We have already written the policies out. The policies are already there and created; all that has to be done is for a school to adopt it, which takes some work and effort and, you know, putting it forth [to the] school board and getting it read for the first time in a second time and then finally approved,” continued Butler.

Da Vinci School’s Title IX Coordinator

A survey conducted by The Vitruvian Post was sent to students from 9th-12th grade who currently attend DVC. The survey’s purpose was to understand the level at which students recognize Title IX and what they believed in terms of Wiseburn’s compliance with the law.

The surveyed students were asked who their Title IX coordinator was. Out of the 134 students surveyed, not a single student could name the Title IX coordinator.

When discussing the communication between Wiseburn and Da Vinci Schools, Jennifer Hawn, the Human Resources and Title IX Coordinator for DV Schools, brought eyes to the separation from the district. 

“Well, Wiseburn is separate. And so they have their own Title IX coordinator [at] Da Vinci. You know, we’re two separate entities, we are connected, but we really have all of our own staff, including, you know, administrative staff Title IX coordinators.” said Hawn. “And so Wiseburn and Da Vinci do not connect over Title IX specifically, but Da Vinci’s administrators do connect, so I see our own Da Vinci administrators, we have a weekly meeting that we go over a number of agenda items.” 

Student Body Understanding of Title IX 

41% of the surveyed students believed that Wiseburn received a B in their most recent report card and 38.6% believed Wiseburn received an A, while only 2.3% of students surveyed believed that Wiseburn received an F. It demonstrates the common lack of awareness regarding Title IX and the school and district’s compliance with the law. 

When questioned about how the surveyed students would feel if they found out that Wiseburn was one of the lowest scoring districts, many stated that they would feel unsafe, disappointed, and shocked. 

“I would feel more upset more than anything because Da Vinci is always talking about how everyone in our school is equal and everyone matters, it would be hypocritical if they aren’t high on the scoring districts,” stated a student who chose to remain anonymous. 

Although the report card is mostly specific to lactation and pregnancy accommodations, many students made a point saying that they would not be surprised by a low score because of their past experiences with the school when attempting to address sexual harassment incidents. Students reported numerous instances where they were harassed by other students and felt uncomfortable at school because of it. Part of Title IX ensures that all genders should be safe and protected from any sexual harassment at school. The law allows for students to report these incidents to properly address the issue and set forth the right consequences to the accused persons. 

83% responded “Yes” to a question asking if the student had ever experienced any of the events listed with their time at DVC (sexual/verbal harassment, violation of gender equity, and an avoidance of counseling from the school or specifically admins). 

It should be noted at this point that the survey was constructed to protect student identities from feeling publicly exposed on topics they weren’t comfortable sharing about. Unless they opted into sharing their identity, their responses will remain anonymous. 

One surveyant said this. 

“I worked together [with] multiple of my friends, each creating witness reports to bring attention to the sharing of dozens of illicit photos at Da Vinci Science amongst 7+ students. Some of us also talked directly to Erin D’Souza over the phone. My understanding is: all that happened was that a couple calls were made, a single student was grounded by their parents, and the school stopped there. Considering that there are many witnesses [and] victims to this event across multiple of our own schools, coupled with the fact that such actions warranted police intervention, I was very disappointed by this course of events. These events took place during online school, which could have made the investigation more difficult as well. I could be mistaken as to exactly what punishment unfurled after my reporting since anonymity was maintained, but I am steadfast in my belief that Da Vinci needs to do better. When I reported a friend’s simple problematic behavior to Erin in a previous incident, the office responded within a matter of days with clear action taken. There is a clear disparity in how the school deals with incident reports- by not addressing the severity of sexual harassment.” 

Information and data surrounding sexual harassment and sexual assault victims is often fuzzy. It’s reported that 25% of women will experience completed or attempted rape during their college career but more than half of them never speak about it (Women’s Law Center ). There have been an abundant amount of surveys and collection of data regarding sexual assault and harassment, but the data will never serve as completely accurate data.

Often, women do not come forward because they live in fear of not being believed. It is common for survivors to receive rash responses after speaking out about their experience. People deny that sexual harassment and sexual assault happens as often as it does. Responses are usually an attempt to invalidate the survivor’s experience. People will accuse the survivor of lying and state that “her story doesn’t add up,” “she didn’t fight back,” or that it was “her fault,” and question why the survivor didn’t speak up right away. These common responses create an unsafe and threatening environment for those who are searching for a safe place to speak about their experience.

“There have been many experiences when male students have made sexual comments towards female bodies, but it’s so normalized that people don’t even realize that it is sexual harassment. Additionally, the dress code policy is clearly targeted towards the female student body,” expressed a student.

They don’t pinpoint a single experience because there have been a multitude of them. They believe that these experiences and incidents are normalized to the point that people invalidate them and don’t count them as sexual harassment. 

Many students responded with similar incidents about their experiences with sexual harassment:

“I was grabbed inappropriately.”

“Boys verbally (sexually) harassing girls even when told to stop.”

“There was an upperclassman that was attracted to me and made it very known. He made me feel very uncomfortable in multiple situations with touching me without my permission, constantly in my personal space, and telling me things I didn’t feel comfortable with.”

“I have been verbally harassed by male students many times… I’ve witnessed boys at school get a slap on the wrist for these types of behaviors. How does catcalling deserve a slap on the wrist when my parents pay hundreds of dollars into my mental health?”

Sexual Harassment in the Eyes of the Law

The last two decades of presidential elections have had drastic differences when it came to the management of Title IX. The Obama administration widened the definition of sexual harassment to include “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” After Trump’s inauguration new rules governing sexual assault bolsters the rights of the accused which has since been easily manipulated by universities and school districts in order to make it harder for victims to experience closure. 

In May 2020 Betsy DeVos released a new regulation about handling sexual assault and harassment in colleges and univerisites, granting more rights to people accused of sexual assault- which took effect in August. Instead of using one official for investigation, she created a process where the accused person can have a live hearing and to cross-examine accusers. 

These rebuttals narrow the types of complaints that schools and institutions have an obligation to investigate. School officials didn’t agree with the new rule saying they didn’t want their campuses to turn into courtrooms, where it’s “incompatible with an academic atmosphere”. 

Incidents of Harassment at DVC 

In the Da Vinci Communications Student Handbook 2018/2019, it states “students who commit sexual harassment are subject to disciplinary action up to and including an expulsion hearing.” Within the same section regarding Sexual Harassment Policy, it dwells down on the intiative timeframe- “Da Vinci Communications expects students to immediately report incidents of sexual harassment to school staff or the school administration.” 

For Da Vinci Schools, Jennifer Hawn is the point person for all incidents, training, and other traits falling under Title IX. 

“I think we’re always looking for ways to improve and get better in terms of sexual assault or sexual harassment. You know, the law is pretty clear. If there’s a complaint, we need to act on it right away,” said Hawn. “What’s unique about Title IX currently, is that one of the changes in the law, here’s an example of a change. Previous prior to last year, if an administrator or anyone suspected there was assault, or sexual harassment or some kind of discrimination, they could investigate that, right, because they were concerned there was an issue.”

Since this new administration has been in the oval office, there comes a period of revamping within each district and school. Beginning Biden’s inauguration, Title IX policies have been opened once more for conversation. “Biden signed a second executive order establishing a new White House Gender Policy Council charged with developing a government-wide strategy for advancing gender equity and equality” which also poses questions about the future for Title IX and students across the country. 

“According to the new regulations, that is the piece that has changed. I should also note, you may know this or not. Under that President, it took that President several years, and he assigned to the Secretary of Education, the previous one, and that was Betsy DeVos,” said Hawn. “ To make those changes, and it took several years to do that, in fact, it took almost there in the entire four years of his presidency to make those changes. Since we now have a new president.”

Sexual Harassment Transparency

“You know, anytime there’s any kind of complaint, we’re interested in being responsive to it immediately,” said Hawn. “So I would say we are within compliance, but I look at compliance as the floor, right? There’s the floor and the ceiling, the ceiling is the best, the floor is the bottom. You know, certainly we comply with the floor. But I think we go above and beyond and when there are student concerns or complaints. Our goal is to respond to them.” 

(Washington Post 2021)

Due process is the fair treatment of both parties within an incident, assuring that through the investigation timeline there is no instance of unfairness. 

“So what’s required transparency actually is required, as is, I think I said before due process. And so an example of that is when a complaint is filed, both parties have to be notified, right? It didn’t used to be that way,” said Hawn in response to being questioned about communication between the parties called to an incident.

“So you have to provide supportive measures to both the alleged victim and the alleged person who’s engaged in the potentially alleged, you know, activity, before you used to be able to just suspend, but now you actually have to provide what we call supportive measures.” said Hawn. “It could be counseling, it could be a variety of things, you also have to provide each side with the same kind of documentation, so that everyone has kind of that same information. So you know, this generally, whenever it’s sexual assault, because that’s under Title IX, that would come to me and I’d be part of that process.”

When asked about Da Vinci’s procedures regarding incidents of sexual assault, Hawn went into how the previous administration’s change in policy affected the investigation protocol. We asked Hawn about due process and the beginning of an incidents investigation, she said it came down to the amount of evidence. In compliance of the newest law changes Hawn said, “there’s more due process for the person who is being accused of sexual harassment, assault, etc, more protections for the person who is being accused.” 

Schools across the nation have made it more difficult for incidents of sexual assault to be investigated, which creates an undesirable incentive for schools to pry into the personal lives of those reporting an incident of sexual misconduct. This has been the result of the Trump administration’s policy that’s been condemned as a bolster for those accused of sexual assault. The transparency has become blurred between the accuser and the accused in the eyes of the law due to Trump’s new policy, causing many women advocate organizations. 

Title IX for Female Athletes at Da Vinci Schools

“Also, the female sport teams are treated differently than the boys teams at Da Vinci, financially and socially,” said an anonymous student.

Another surveyant also made note of the sports disparities.

“Many female athletes last year didn’t get any equality so they really didn’t get equity. More time and money was spent on boys sports.”

Before COVID-19 initiated a state of quarantine during mid-March, two reporters investigated the claims of disparity in terms of treatment and funding between the women and men sports at Da Vinci Schools. 

Chelsea McKinnon and Jacob Flowers brought exposure to this difference within the first few sentences of their article, The Lack of Support and Advertising in Women’s Basketball at Da Vinci

In the article it states, “Every year, the Wiseburn Unified School District subsidizes $15,000  for Da Vinci Athletics. According to a document provided by the Wiseburn School District that outlines the basketball budget, the 14-person Men’s Basketball team had $888.15 of the $15,000 spent on them while the 14-person Women’s Basketball team only had $516.04 spent on them. The Women’s funding went mainly towards new jerseys for the Women’s Junior Varsity team that they were unable to wear due to not meeting the CIF regulations.” 

Funding in a general sense is the result of predictions and potentials that athletic directors among others on the board of funding can see for different sports. From their article, student responses regarding an average boys’ basketball game to have a larger audience with no promotion. McKinnon and Flowers counter with the opinion that both teams should receive equal promotion regardless of turnout to amend gender equity. 

One of the biggest aspects of Title IX is its impact on women’s sports and athletics. Since Title IX was passed in 1972, female athletic participation has increased by 1,063%. 

In fact, girls who play sports are more likely to graduate from both high school and college (WLC). The number of female athletes in high school has increased from 295,000 in 1972 to more than 2.6 million. When the law was first introduced, it encouraged universities to offer women the same opportunities as men in the sports program (although the first things affected by Title IX were law and med school). 

There are still big concerns surrounding budgets for women’s sports vs. men’s sports. When Title IX was enacted, women’s and men’s programs were required to devote the same resources to locker rooms, medical treatment, training, coaching, practice times, travel and per diem allowances, equipment, practice facilities, tutoring, and recruitment. 

“If you talk to any major athlete right now, any sport they will tell you that Title IX is what has gotten them there. And so it is the law of the land,” said Butler. “It does help women and girls become stronger, more successful; they have more confidence. They’re just going to fare better overall and so being able to participate in sports is really critically important.”

Da Vinci Schools does not have a Title IX funding coordinator but when Erin D’Souza was contacted about Title IX, she said to her understanding that the Title IX funds are managed by the athletics department before providing the contact information for Vicente Bravo- an overseer for operations, equity, compliance, and athletics. 

When reached out to for a potential interview, there was no response from Bravo. 

In contrast to the response received from D’Souza regarding Title IX, in the interview with Hawn, she debunked the existence of any source of Title IX funding. 

“I don’t- we don’t get any Title IX funding,” said Hawn. “There’s no funding attached to it. It’s a law, but there’s no money. Now what the law says is if you receive any federal funding at all, then you have to comply with Title IX.”

Da Vinci School’s Amending of Title IX in the Future

Da Vinci Communications is a part of the three Da Vinci High Schools which publicly promise gender equity across their student body. If broadening the perspective of DVC, however, the funding and collaboration seen with Wiseburn shows a difference in what qualifies as gender equity. 

The definition of gender equity does not boil down to a verbal promise printed on student handbooks and summarized on the school webpage; it’s through actions and student responses that families see the true system of the schools their kids attend. 

The survayants incidents of dismissive responses to incidents of harassment and lack of follow-up regarding issues of sexual harassment, the CWLC repeatedly reporting Wiseburn as a district failing to be graded above an F in amending policies meant for student accomendation, and a disparity in funding for the girl oriented basketball team.

Words are simply a way to circumvent conversations and reprieve students of the worry of how their school would handle incidents of their own. From reading student’s actual experiences and interviewing the Human Resources Counselor, Da Vinci Schools’s actions prove equal to their district’s lack of progressive policies in accommodating their students of a variety of gender identities. 

These encounters will not progress to the CWLC’s expectations overnight and students will not be assisted on all of their previous incident reports that weren’t followed up. In order to create change, students must confront these issues with emails and voiced concerns rather than continuing to let them go unnoticed. 

“I think a lot of students are afraid to do this, but it’s always okay to call an organization like ours and talk to an attorney, and learn about what the law actually says and what your rights actually are…” said Poyer. “Wiseburn has a pretty progressive district [but] had these issues and has not has still not, you know, put these policies in place.” 

“To actually address it does require that they go into these underlying reasons of why they’re violating Title IX… Sometimes just getting a lawyer involved means that the school is gonna actually sit up and take notice, because they’re, you know, now they don’t want a lawsuit on their hands. But being loud and being and encouraging other people to be loud, I think is probably the most important thing that you can do.”